Coal, power and violent protest in Bangladesh

Norway’s central bank has announced that its sovereign wealth fund – the richest in Europe – is to boycott companies building the Rampal power plant in Bangladesh. Its decision further aggravates what is already a violent flashpoint for protest.


On 5 May Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM) announced that it was to exclude a major Indian engineering contractor from its investment portfolio. This was because the company, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL), is building a 1,300MW coal-fired power station in the Sundarbans, a giant mangrove forest that covers southern Bangladesh and which is a Unesco World Heritage site.

The Sundarbans cover 40,000 hectares of Bangladesh at the delta created by the Ganges, Meghna and Brahmaputra rivers. This maze of streams, mud flats and tree-covered islands supports Bengal tigers, freshwater dolphins and many other rare creatures and plants. Its tourism sector is undeveloped, and the area is poor, with fishermen plagued by gangs of pirates that hide among the mangroves.

It also queried whether the plant was outside the 10km exclusion zone around conservation areas mandated by Bangladeshi law

NBIM’s ethics panel decided that a coal-fired power station should not be built in Khulna, Bangladesh’s third-largest city, which lies on the northern extremity of the mangrove forests and is known as the ’gateway to the Sundarbans’. Khulna is a major river port, and NBIM’s experts concluded that the raw materials needed to build and operate it would be transported by barge through the Sundarbans, raising the risk of accidents and spillages of substances such as coal ash. Several coal barges have sunk in the Sundarbans over the past three years.

Secondly, NBIM noted that the river and sea beds will need to be dredged to improve navigability, and that this would release a large volume of particulate matter into the waterways, with potentially deleterious effects on the ecosystem. It also queried whether the plant was outside the 10km exclusion zone around conservation areas mandated by Bangladeshi law – some sources claim it’s only 5km away from the border – and whether it was sufficiently resilient to the high-water natural hazards that apply to the Khulna area.

BHEL replied to the panel’s inquiries. It said that it would transport waste from the plant by land, and that it would only use experienced barge operators to transport materials to the site. This was not enough for the Norwegians, however. They decided the risk of unforeseen events inflicting permanent damage on the Sundarbans was too great, and thus disbarred BHEL from their investment.

Thinking globally, acting locally

If this sounds like a rich European country imposing its world view on a poor one, it should be noted that objections to the Rampal power plant are even greater within Bangladesh than they were in Oslo. Peaceful protests began in 2013 with marches and civil advocacy, but this failed to sway Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government. Opposition to the plant has become more violent in recent months. In January and February 2017 students and left-wing parties staged violent protests in the capital Dhaka’s Shahbag area against the Rampal project. Police used tear gas to break up both protests.

The movement is supported by international pressure groups such as Friends of the Earth, which in January organised a ‘global day of action and solidarity’ that included a protest in New York City. This month, Greenpeace claimed that the plant would dramatically worsen local air quality and would cause 6,000 premature deaths from pollution exposure over the course of its lifetime, with the effects ranging as far as Dhaka and the Indian city of Kolkata. It also predicted that mercury discharges from the plant would render fish unsafe to eat.

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