Even mid-way last year, the Department of Environment's environmental clearance committee questioned whether Navana's Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) bottling plant in Mongla should be cleared. “The plant is within the designated Ecologically Critical Area around the Sundarbans,” they opined. They held off on giving the license.
Half a year later, their opinions changed, and Navana's plant got a freshly minted license –so did at least 11 other LPG bottling plants. Two others who were told to hold off, can probably also get a clearance should they apply again this year. At least Navana has been in operation in the area for a while, with one fully-functional factory—they are simply extending. Some others, like Green Town LP gas, are going to be new in town.
This is what happened after the government issued a gazette in December 2017 adding LPG bottling plants into the “Green Category” of industries. The decision was made in a summit by the National Environment Committee in August. To put it into perspective, India categorises LPG bottling as “Red Category” in most states. Factories are categorised between Green, Orange, and Red (with Green being the safest) depending on their level of riskiness and impact on humans and the environment. Steel-making, for example, is not a safe industry, and neither is LPG bottling, according to India. Bangladesh somehow seems to think LPG bottling belongs to the “Green Category” alongside industries like weaving, book-binding and candle-making.
“LPG will only be bottled here, not processed. A pipeline leading from the mother ship will directly take the gas to the plant. But should there be an accident, it will be a huge environmental problem,” says Khulna DoE Director Mohammed Habibul Haque Khan. India has LPG bottling plant accidents every other year.
Cement factories are still “Red”, and nobody has figured out what to do with those which are literally across the river from the Sundarbans. A 10 kilometre buffer zone surrounds the Sundarbans and no unsafe factories can be built here. This was done in 1999 and the zone was demarcated as an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA). Yet this cement factories exist within this buffer zone.
For example if you draw a straight line from Bashundhara Cement to Karamjol Forest Station and Wildlife Rescue Centre, the distance is only 5.94 kilometres. This still an overestimation of the distance because Karamjol itself is about two kilometres inside the approximate boundary of the forest.
“We take utmost precautions with the cement factories, like using covered conveyer belts, but there are still risks, of course. At present two cement factories in Mongla do not have enough “dust collectors”. Dust Collectors are needed to contain air pollution when unloading the clinkers (raw material) used for producing cement, from the ships,” says Khulna's DoE Director, Khan. Both the factories he mentioned were just about 10 kilometres away from Karamjol. Once again, this distance is an overestimation.
The Centre for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) produces quarterly monitoring reports of the area surrounding Rampal Power Plant. These reports assess factors like the quality of soil, air, water. According to the last monitoring report from January of this year, the air quality of the area around Mongla Port area was found to be way below acceptable. “Most of the river traffic plying towards and away from Mongla Port area through the Sundarbans Reserve Forest area may be the prominent sources of [pollutants],” claims the report, by this state-supported organisation.
Here is another interesting example: In March 2015, the DoE gave the Mongla Economic Zone conditional environmental clearance. In a following meeting in the same year—the minutes of which are publicly available—the department observed that “The EIA report states that there are no ecologically critical areas within 10 kilometres of the site, but the Sundarbans reserve forest is only 5 kilometres away. The EIA must state the truth regarding this.”
According to the meeting minutes of the DoE board that gives environmental clearances, the Mongla Economic Zone does not appear to have been discussed after that day in 2015, but that has not stopped the government from appointing PowerPac as the licensed developer of the project whose site itself was being scrutinised. The appointment happened in 2016.
Then there are those who had bought up acre after acre to set up factories promising jobs to the locals. One such example is Fomkom which owns at least 50.6 acres where the village settlement of Bidyarbahon used to be, for a gas processing plant (separates oil from gas) that did not even get site clearance. During a meeting of the DoE on March 29, 2015 the committee that gives environmental clearances ruled against Fomkom because “the factory location was within the ecologically critical area of the Sundarbans.” Fomkom appealed against it against in May 2015, asking for conditional clearance. They are yet to make any factories there—the land simply exists as large plots used for shrimp cultivation, while that part of Bidyarbahon is nowhere to be seen.
Kushtia lawmaker, Mabubul Alam Hanif's land—located in Chila union, the last settlement before the Sundarbans—is another example. Google Earth puts the area at 9.64 acres, but according to a 2013 report in The Daily Star, Hanif apparently owns some 67 acres within the area. Star was quoting out of his wealth statement, also adding that he annually earns Tk 3.27 crore from his fish farms in Khulna and Patuakhali. The report also states that Hanif owns Sun Marine Shipyard—local land office records put the area at 14 acres. This project, too, did not get clearance as of May 2018.
Other such industries which have displaced villages but not been able to develop functioning factories include Saif Ship Building, Energypac Power, Confidence Steel, EBS Energy, Amin Mohammed Energy Group, FM Foods Ltd, Uttara Automobile, Marine Vegetable, Nur Global Metal Recycling and Manufacture Ltd, New Bashundhara LPG, Petromax Refinery and Karim Group. Together their land makes up nearly 150 acres. The local land offices provided this information to Star Weekend.
“We have no guidance on whether the land for industrial development should be acquired before or after the EIA approval. Meanwhile the government is no longer giving clearances to industries within the Ecologically Critical Area,” says Khulna's DoE Director Khan. That simply means 10 kilometres—Index Power and Energy (an LPG bottling plant) which is 10.2 kilometres away from the Sundarbans was allowed and this happened before LPG was made “green”.
The ones who lost
Meanwhile the people have left and the villages are gone.
Swapan Bala's sprawling household of children and grandchildren in Joymonir Gol is one of the last Hindu families left in the village. Raybari is already gone—the whole family moved away. Bala's father is buried beside his house—a flowering red hibiscus overshadows the grave.
“It has been 10-12 years since they started buying up the land and people started moving,” he says.
“They came to us but we refused to move because this is my ancestral land. They came straight from Dhaka, we had no idea who they were. They said they'd give us a good price if we sold the land to them,” adds Bala. He has 10 bighas of land. His family had already lost 9-10 acres when government acquired land to make a multimillion dollar grain silo. The silo itself stands of 64 acres of land.
“I got Tk 2.85 lakh per acre as compensation when the market price here is Tk 4.5 lakh for every acre,” says Bala. “They said the land is needed for the sake of the country, so I am compelled to give it up.” He started reciting name after name of his neighbours who have moved away to the west of Pashur River or moved into the towns.
Md Musfiqul Alam Halim, the assistant commissioner of land at Rampal upazila shed light on how Hindu villagers move away from their homes. “Right now I am dealing with a case like this. Five Rings Cement is proposing to extend the space of their plant, but there is a vested property right in the middle,” he says gesticulating at a map, “a Hindu family lives here. We are going to try and stop them from taking it.”
Back in the village of Joymonir Gol, a local fisherman, Shahidul Fakir, shows where homes used to be, “You see that land there? There were at least 40 families. They were extremely poor fishermen. We are unsure how they managed to evict so many families altogether.” Fakir, just a bit better off than the shrimp-fry catchers he is talking about—his well-toned muscles and broad shoulders give away the fact that he is no stranger to rowing his boat further down where the river meets the sea, where the catch is bigger and the risks higher.
“They [land brokers] have been pressurising me to sell my land as well but I haven't. I am also still fighting to get compensation for two bighas of my land which was acquired by the government-made grain silo in our village. The land deeds are being disputed and I am still trying to prove in court that it is really mine,” he says.
“I have a land deed, I have all the proof needed. If I lose it, it is because I am poor and uneducated and I am up against powerful land brokers,” adds Fakir. He alleged that a local union parishad chairman is orchestrating the land acquisition.
Then there are those who had to sell off their land but had nowhere else to go so they either rent or squat. Mohammad Nazrul Islam Sheikh still lives in the same village of Chila union even after his land was acquired by a company. “Now I lease out a plot beside it to cultivate fish,” he says.
“The 'company' paid adequately for the land but the middlemen took it all,” adds Islam.
Why then did he give up his land? “They told us that they would make factories and have jobs for us. I wanted to stop being a fisherman and have a job.”
That, there is the tug-of-war happening in the district of Mongla. Factories bringing the prospect of jobs, factories with no jobs for villagers like Nazrul Islam, factories that are less than a mile away from the Sundarbans.
“The grain silo was built on our land, our land! But not one person was employed from our village,” cries Nazrul Islam. Other villagers also state the same.
Can the Sundarbans take the hit?
On April 15 of this year, a lighter vessel carrying 775 MT of coal ran aground of a hidden char, which is an islet that only appears when the tide is out, disappearing into the riverbed when the water levels are high. This happened in the Pashur river in a location called Harbaria. Harbaria consists of 12 outer harbours where mother ships moor themselves while smaller vessels go up to them to receive cargo for transportation to the Mongla Port, which is further upstream. Locals claim the very name Harbaria is a bastardisation of the word “harbour” or “harbour area”.
The vessel had barely left the ship's side when the accident happened—it was a couple of yards inwards at best. And yet this location had a hidden char—is it not a miracle that a mother ship has not gotten stuck?
“The mother ships don't care if the tide is in or out—the minute we are done loading we have to leave their side. This increases the risks of accidents,” says Mohammed Miah Chand Mollah, a lighter vessel's captain. He was moored against the mother ship MV Observator—the same ship from which the vessel which capsized had received cargo. “For example, I am done loading coal and they are pressurising me to leave. They don't care that the tide is out which makes it dangerous for me to sail,” he adds. The accident had taken place literally hours from when we were speaking.
“Pashur river has a lot of sedimentation so these hidden chars are normal. A skilful sailor would know how to navigate around it,” Commander HM Waliullah, harbour master of Mongla port says.
For this purpose, the river would need constant dredging. President Abdul Hamid himself visited Mongla on April 8 to inaugurate the dredging of the channel. The dredging project was given environmental clearance in 2015.
Here is the catch however—UNESCO regards dredging as a potentially harmful activity, and a threat to the Sundarbans. The World Heritage Committee decided last year that no development—including dredging—can be done without a Strategic Environmental Assessment first. Also, Harbaria is smack in the middle of the forest; protected forest ranges swank the area on either side. A boat trip to Harbaria usually yields quite a few dolphin sightings, while spotted deer peek out shyly from behind the trees. Or one could see foot-long monitor lizards lounging by the riverside, patrolled by a fishing eagle making circles overhead. The lucky person can also spot a fishing cat, camouflaged against the mangrove roots. This is Harbaria. This is the place slated to become a busy outer anchorage.
As for what happened to the coal ship that sank, as Commander Waliullah says, “We rescued the vessel but 90 percent of the coal sank to the bottom of the river.”
In November 2017, the Mongla Port celebrated the incoming of 87 foreign ships as a booming of business. “This is the record highest monthly number of ships we have had in 67 years of operation,” boasted the press release promising more ships in the future. This also means there will be more ship traffic in the following years.
During an inter-departmental meeting on August 26, 2015, representatives of the DoE and DoF asked this question, “Should the licenses of the factories in and around Mongla be renewed since they are so close to the ecologically critical area of the Sundarbans?” The factories are still running, but the fact is this question is being raised in hindsight, years after factories have been built and lives upended.