Saturday, June 15, 2024

Why the Movement Against the Rampal Power Plant in Bangladesh Failed

Originally posted in Himal Southasian on 24 February, 2023

Five years after a people’s movement to stop a power plant near the Sundarban, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government has pushed the project through. Why did this movement fail where others in Bangladesh have succeeded?

On 17 December 2022, the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project within the Khulna division, Bangladesh’s third-largest city, began commercial power production from the first of two planned generation units. This was a major landmark for a project of great significance for the Bangladesh government under Sheikh Hasina. The prime minister inaugurated the first unit a few months ago, alongside the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. For Modi, this was a diplomatic success, showcasing his government’s ties to Dhaka. The plant is a joint venture between the Indian and Bangladeshi governments, and an Indian state-owned firm won the contract to build it. The event was a diplomatic triumph for Hasina too, but also something more. The Rampal plant, as it is widely known, is the culmination of a domestic political battle that Hasina’s government fought and won against a movement bitterly opposed to the project.

The movement, led by various civil society organisations and local protest groups, reached its peak in early 2017, with multiple protests and strikes demanding that the project be scrapped. One of its main concerns, along with land dispossession, was the threat to the Sundarban, the unique mangrove ecosystem located a few kilometres downriver from the power plant. The movement’s supporters included urban, middle-class groups such as the National Committee on Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, numerous environmentalist groups, and affiliates of left-leaning parties. Locally, in and around Khulna, the Rampal Bhumi Rokkha Sangram Committee initiated the resistance. Yet despite years of opposition, the Sheikh Hasina government pushed the project through.

In some ways, the movement’s failure was surprising. Bangladesh has seen successful movements against government-directed development projects, in recent times at Chunarughat and Phulbari. The anti-Rampal movement once seemed capable of joining that list of successful examples, yet why did it fail? Five tumultuous years since the movement’s peak, and in the wake of the plant starting commercial operations, that question is timely and essential. Understanding the dynamics of the Rampal movement, especially how it compares to other successful resistance efforts in the recent past, offers key lessons on democratic mobilisation in Bangladesh and beyond.

The power of samaj

The historian Ranajit Guha, in his work Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, explains the merits of analysing ‘peasants’ as makers of their own rebellions. Guha also shows how India’s nationalist historiography treats independent peasant rebellions as components of a pre-history of the freedom movement against colonial rule, and thus robs peasant rebellions of their temporal characteristics. This is a trend that applies beyond India as well. Guha analyses the conditions necessary for local and agricultural groups to build resistance by themselves. In the chapter “Solidarity”, he describes the importance of community in peasant mobilisation: “Solidary is thus a categorial imprint of peasant consciousness and there is hardly a rebellion that does not bear it,” writes Guha. The peasant insurgents of colonial India were often inspired by the actions of other similar groups and members of their community, giving impetus to their own local insurgency. Peasant rebellions, like the Santhal hool that took place in 1855, spread as much as they did because members of the participating communities were pressed into rebellion, imitating what other members or communities had been doing. As such, if mobilisation was started by part of a community that was strongly knitted together, it would often spread to other parts of the community. Due to this reason, the precedence of peasant organisation and rebellion can be important in the process of organising and the spread of rebellions in the present. Guha theorises that where class solidarity is predominant among peasants, the cause of rebellion can be bolstered. Ethnic affinity also strongly correlates with solidarity, as exemplified by the nineteenth-century peasant rebellions in colonial India. For example, the Bhogta and the Ghasi of Tori pargana of Chota Nagpur imitated the behaviour of other members of their communities and engaged in rebellion during the Kol insurrection of 1832. They imitated the examples of their immediate neighbourhood.

On 26 August 2006, in Phulbari, in northwestern Bangladesh, 50,000 people protested against a proposal by the UK-based Asia Energy to engage in open-pit coal mining and install a coal-based power plant. The Bangladesh government originally awarded a coal exploration license in 1994 to the Australian company BHP minerals, which decided against developing a mining operation. Later, in 1999, BHP’s licenses were transferred to Asia Energy PLC. The company would mine coal and develop a coal-fired power plant. This would have meant digging huge pits with heavy machinery to access the coal deposits, which required removing people from their homes and farmland. Security forces opened fire on protesters, killing five and injuring many others. The response was mass outrage and a nationwide stir that ended with the government suspending Asia Energy’s field activities and reviewing the details of the mining deal.

On 30 August, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led administration of the time was forced to accept an agreement following days of strikes, rallies, demonstrations, and blockades. The people and the government of Bangladesh reached an agreement known as the “Phulbari Agreement” (the National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Port and Power represented the people). The agreement outlined that the Phulbari coal project will be abandoned and Asia Energy would be expelled from the country. Furthermore, open-pit mining would not be permitted in the country. Moreover, in the future, mining methods and other actions for developing and using coal would be decided after full engagement with affected people, keeping national interest intact.

This was one of the largest movements against land dispossession in Bangladesh in recent times and set an example for community mobilisation against government initiatives that displaced people. Land ownership played a critical role in forming local resistance against the mine, as most of the people who participated in the resistance would possibly be displaced if the coal mine was to be established. Their landed interest was the motivation for them risking their lives to stop the coal mine from being established. On a more micro level, anxieties related to the loss of samaj, or communal solidarity, characterised by generational social relations also galvanised action. The residents of the Phulbari region had formed their own society and the coal mine threatened this. They joined the protest in imitation with others to save that society.

In Chunarughat, in northeastern Bangladesh, the government planned to establish a Special Economic Zone by dispossessing tea workers of land granted to them by the tea company they worked for. The workers did not have legal titles to these lands, and the government had the right to acquire it since it was officially khas (public) land that had been leased out to the company. After the tea workers protested, other workers in the region joined the resistance, and later, also national leftist intellectuals and activists, many of them under the banner of the National Committee. In the face of overwhelming resistance, the government stopped the project for the time being, though there remains  the possibility of a future venture to build the Special Economic Zone, as the land officially does not yet belong to the tea workers. Here again, the workers, mostly members of the same tribal community, already shared a strong sense of community, or samaj, and had previous experience in organising resistance in their battles with the tea company and tea-estate managements. They were able to translate that experience into their protests against the state.

Absence of ‘locals’ in the Rampal resistance

When compared to Phulbari and Chunarughat, locals at Rampal, where the new power plant is located, were at a disadvantage due to the disintegration of their samaj and a weaker cultural affinity to their land. To understand this movement, I spent around two years following the movement and interviewed key figures within it. I was also involved with the movement from a distance, and therefore had direct access to the activists. The activists I interviewed noted that the high number of migrants in the region (who came from other villages in the area to find a place to live) meant that there was barely anyone who was “local” at Rampal, since the locals of the area had already been displaced. Unlike in other parts of rural Bangladesh, where paddy farming is dominant, locals in Rampal largely farm shrimp in saltwater enclosures. Large-scale shrimp cultivation, which largely began in the 1980s, disrupted established land relations and the traditional samaj. Displaced from their traditional agricultural jobs, the local populace shifted to other economic activities – driving vans, collecting honey in the Sundarban and so on.

The infusion of saltwater into farmland caused it to lose productivity. The fields neighbouring the shrimp farms also experienced a loss in fertility. Then the shrimp enclosures that replaced the fields started returning lower profits due to sluggish demand in the international market. Land prices in the area plummeted as a result. When the government came in to acquire their land for the power station, titleholders were happy to receive any sort of compensation for it.

There were also other barriers to solidarity. Different groups of people inhabited the 1838 acres of land appropriated for the plant. One group was the fisherfolk community, typically from Bangladesh’s Hindu minority, who had been living in the area for a long time and had land titles. They also worked as farmhands in the shrimp enclosures, or as informal labourers in other jobs. By and large, they did not have their own farms but possessed their homesteads. During the government’s land acquisition, they received compensation and were happy to leave. They did not have an incentive to resist because they did not see the land as valuable.

Another group was the land-owning middle classes, who owned and operated the shrimp enclosures and paddy farms (which still remained in the area, albeit on a smaller scale than before). While they were not permanent residents of the region, they were present there due to business interests. The local MP Talukder Abdul Khaleque had initially promised such landowners that they would not be dispossessed, which they later found out was not true. Most were also not happy with the amount of compensation offered and did not want to give up their way of life. This is the group that formed the Bhumi Rokkha Committee, under the leadership of the activist Sushanta Das.

Migrant workers, comprising landless farmers and day labourers, formed another group. Largely reliant on work in the shrimp farms, they were the biggest group of supporters for the committee, attending meetings with a lot of enthusiasm. They were quite desperate because they knew they would not get direct compensation from the government. But while they wanted to halt the power plant, the committee’s main objective was to acquire substantial compensation from the government for landowners.

The committee’s mid-level leaders left the movement after receiving somewhat higher compensation than they originally demanded. This left the landless – who were marginalised to begin with – to fend for themselves. Many of them were members of the Hindu minority, and from the most oppressed classes and castes among Bangladeshi Hindus. There was also a large group of landless Muslims, and these groups of people, not accustomed to seeing themselves as a collective, were unable to create a samaj. Instead, they were mobilised under the leadership of solvent businessmen with very different needs from theirs. Moreover, as landless people without deep cultural or traditional ties to the place, they did not have a great sense of ownership of the location. Due to these reasons, this group was not able to unify and mobilise itself, even though it was numerically the largest one impacted.

‘Development’ versus the Sundarban

Many anti-Rampal campaigners, particularly national leftist intellectuals and activists, periodically raised environmental concerns – such as the possibility of acid rain, the effects of coal barges sinking in the rivers near the plant, and harm inflicted on wildlife and forests due to smog from power production. Many locals also recognised the environmental threat from the plant and the value of the Sundarban. In interviews with the National Committee of Journalists in the Rampal region, many repeatedly stated that the Sundarban was Allah’s daan, or gift, and a national asset that must be protected. Yet environmental activists failed to mobilise the people in Rampal around this threat, unlike in Phulbari where ecological concerns were at the heart of local resistance.

According to the researcher and activist Maha Mirza, based on her experience with the Phulbari movement, the first impetus for a movement like the one at Phulbari must come from grievances of land dispossession. Thus, the first and the second steps of mobilisation failed in Rampal. Both Maha Mirza and the political activist Baki Billah, who were deeply engaged in the Rampal movement representing both urban and rural interests, said that, due to the weakness in organisational structures, the leftist parties and National Committee were not able to galvanise the local community around environmental threats. Overall, the locals did not have enough incentive to act upon environmental claims due to government coercion and because the immediate benefit of “saving the forest” was intangible. Baki Billah said, “Many of the locals were weary of the project, but did not see it fit to risk their safety by joining protests against the local influentials just for the sake of protecting Sundarbans, which many of them were unable to grasp the threat to.”

To supplant environmentalists’ claims, the government initiated a massive propaganda push to garner popular support for the plant. This included running promotional advertisements on national television and much more. The Rampal plant’s proponents claimed that the use of advanced technology would make it almost completely benign to the environment. To build up these claims, they used terms that few understood – “Multistage Effluent Treatment Plant”, “supercritical boiler technology” and such. Multiple experts called these claims deceitful and demanded a halt to the advertisement campaigns, but the public soon started believing the claims or becoming less responsive to the National Committee’s counters. And there were those, many of them middle-class service professionals, who argued that the need to develop industry overrode all else, and that the plant would combat everything from unemployment to dacoity in the Sundarban. They even claimed National Committee activists were being paid by the opposition to tarnish the Awami League government.

While most locals were convinced that the project would harm the environment and cause destruction in the Sundarban, there were opposing views as well. Most recognised the necessity of power generation, though they firmly believed it should not come at the expense of the Sundarban. The National Committee’s slogan that there were alternatives for the power plant but no alternatives for the Sundarban was often repeated in the region.

Local landowners benefited directly from the establishment of the plant as land prices in the area multiplied exponentially due to its arrival. Some local groups, persuaded by government rhetoric, believed that the power station would bring development and new jobs to the area. Some are still convinced that they, or their children, will get jobs in the industries that they were promised would follow the power plant.

There were also complex political dynamics at play in the region. The local leftist parties are strongly aligned with the ruling Awami League. As such, they were wary of supporting the movement, which was essentially anti-government and by extension anti-Awami League. There was also an element of fear and mistrust within the local community. According to locals I interviewed, the ruling party has decreed an unspoken rule of silence in and around Rampal regarding the power plant, and Awami League leaders have prevented farmers from working in the area if they took part in the movement. Activists were reportedly beaten and intimidated by the police when they tried to organise in their localities, according to local political leaders.

Sushanta Das, head of the Bhumi Rokkha Committee, argued in an interview that the lack of external support was the main factor that limited the movement. He complained that he did not receive much support from opposition parties and that the police became more and more ruthless over time. “Many of my comrades were jailed and goons backed by the ruling party terrorised the local community,” Sushanta said. He claimed that the locals were concerned about environmental harm but were unwilling to risk their security to stop them.

In another interview, a local recited almost verbatim the environmental claims of anti-Rampal activists. He lamented that the government did not let people like him organise any protests, and said that his words did not have any value because he would be arrested the moment he spoke out. He also complained that no opposition party could take to the streets, so the government did not have to pay attention to what the people wanted. Critics of the Awami League government say it has stamped out dissent and opposition, including from its main rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The same intimidation tactics were employed against the Phulbari and Chunarughat protests. Yet, in those movements, there was never a sense that the local communities needed shelter or protection from national political or civil-society organisations. 

The lack of a sense of samaj and ownership of the land was central to the disempowerment of the local community in Rampal. Following Guha’s work, if there was a stronger sense of community among the displaced people in Rampal, they would have been able to mount a much stronger protest. The local people believed that they could not resist without external support. The government reportedly used tactics of coercion and intimidation which worked due to the lack of solidarity between the different factions of the movement. Meanwhile, a massive government-funded propaganda campaign countered concerns for the environment. The state also demotivated a number of the local leaders by paying them more than their expected compensation for land and enticed others with promises of development and industry. All of these factors contributed to the lack of local community mobilisation against the power plant project in Rampal – and, as a result, the failure of the movement as a whole.