Rampal and the seductive power of feel good development

Published : 12 Oct 2013, 06:15 PM
Updated : 12 Oct 2013, 06:15 PM

The baffling array of events around the Rampal power plant project and its 'Bheramara' inauguration has lately exposed our incredible bigotry in defining development and progress. The 'official' sense of dictatorial disregard for environmental and human tragedy has been simply breathtaking.

Politically nobody can denounce a 1320 MW power generating machinery. It is a feel good venture and we do starve for electricity. The problem is the project is a mad mash-up of some maddening amount of sulphur dioxide, radium, chromium, mercury, nitrogen dioxide, and some seven hundred thousand tons of fly ash. It requires a frightening level of withdrawal of water (9,150 cubic meters per hour) from the already dying Possur River and it happened in a smoky backroom dealing at the stroke of a pen. Additionally, with a tiny winy 15 percent investment, the Indian company NTPC is designed to get a giant ownership of as much as 50 percent. The outstanding interest of a narrow oligarchy on this project is thus clearly visible.

On the other hand, we have been held hostage to the idea that there is simply NO other alternative. No one denies that metropolitanism is unbearable without energy supply. However power grid, by no means, should be the end logic of our development paradigm. The people of Rampal, the rivers of Sundarban, and the overall natural organism of the locality must not be perceived as mere 'collateral damage' for enhancing middle-class utility.

While the state continues to be obsessed with big development projects and paid experts; coal plants, fly-overs and nuclear power plants have become the core development vision of our middle class mindset. Cafes, billboards, ramp models, peri-peri chicken restaurants, and imported hot dogs have become our ultimate emblems of modernization. Farmers, villagers, labourers, and poor communities, in this process, are perceived to be the 'un-modern', 'un-civil' roadblocks to our unstoppable path towards progress. The poor are obviously selfish enough not to be willing to forgo their pieces of land for the greater sake of national progress, and the rest, who refuse to accept a 1320 MW sensational coal power plant is a mere bunch of anti-development, anti-progress, anti-modernisation, anti-science, anti-liberation Peking-biased lunatic communists.

We rightly comprehend with horror today how Rampal project has generated a splendid number of false claims, spurious methodologies and pseudo-science. It not only involves colossal misrepresentation of data; technical experts and consultants have continued to cherry-pick partial facts to suit their clients, and attempt to trim down important social, environmental and human values to either few pages of cost and benefit analysis or some techno-bureaucratic reports of environmental impact assessments. After all, how can you weigh the living of a few poor men and a jumbo jungle against a 1320 MW kick ass power plant? You can't, can you?

To be utterly clear, the possible alternatives for 'Rampal' and 'Ruppur' were spelled out over and over again. After all, there are plenty of sustainable and sensible ways of filling the energy tub. After all, it is possible to fix our awfully inefficient gas based power plants to get an extra 2000 megawatt of electricity. After all, through waste reduction, capacity enhancing functions and load management, another 2500 MW of electricity is diggable. After all, renewable energy has splendid prospects and that can add gem to the overall supply. After all, this additional 4500 MW of electricity is 'doable' within a matter of a year only. After all, renovation, modernisation, expansion and fixing leakages of the old plants will cost a mere Tk 2,400 crore (hardly 14 percent of the total package of the quick rental subsidy) (see source). After all, there is no chance of big ticket corruption in such humble and workable solutions.

On the contrary, Rampal offers enormous possibilities of 'money making' and instigates a profitable geo political algebra. The bureaucratic desirability for Rampal is hence comprehensible and the official attitude of not giving a damn to the most commonsensical suggestion of 'fixing the old plants' is also noticeable.

Poor vs. development

The fact of the matter is our urban elite is tired of 'a-country-of-68,000-villages' and wants to project its modern face instead. Jamming river, hammering forests, and spoiling firming lands are not so awful after all, as long as it creates a few jobs, and light up our urban living, including few fully air-conditioned multiplex-cineplexes. Such 'feel good' plank is the obvious reflection of our terrible 'disconnect' from the horrible reality.

Once the people of Kaptai and the people of Narmada valley were 'deliberately' drowned in order to gloss our metropolitan living. Once the people of Fulbari were 'deliberately' shot in order to hype up the London Stock index. Once three young men of Rupganj were 'deliberately' killed in order to assemble a world class condominium city for the military elite. Once the women farmers of Kerala kicked out a mega Coca Cola bottling plant from Plachimida in order to protect their ground water. Once the people of Rampal welcomed a Long March in order to preserve their net of lives, web of rivers. Big development projects are always being planned in the name of the poor. Ironically it's the 'poor' who had all along damned it.

Yet, what is remarkably obvious is a serious lack of interest in the network of nature and the lives of the poor. Our one track obsession on 'numbers' as a measuring-device of progress, our unlimited hunger for a high GDP, and a bigoted term like 'middle income' has become the permanent theme song of our national lives. One might be inclined to ask, haven't these ideas consistently failed in the past?

What is development after all?

If facts rather than fantasy matter at all, expansion of lavishness was never an indicator of development'. It was just an indicator of mounting economic inequality.

Development was never the idea of gangsterisation of super malls and outbursts of cities, neither is it the idea of astounding billboards and a city jam packed with reconditioned Japanese Hyundais.

Development was never the idea of 'the 12th-largest-mall-in-the-world' in a country of 30 million chronically underfed.

Development does not mean a bunch of skyscrapers with no assurance of undisrupted water supply for its commode flushing. Development is not consumption of Coca Cola. Nor is it the marble craftiness of high end hospitals. Development is not Ilana D'suza's glam shots.

Rather, development is the idea of genuine equity, the sense and sensibility of preservation. Development is the idea of simple access to hospital beds and affordable health care. Development is rule of law, easy access to legal service for the poor. Development is nationwide cold storage for potatoes, fair price for farmers, and safe emergency exits for workers. Development is the idea of clean water supply, low cost public trains, flowing rivers, and uncorrupted buildings. Development is fire service departments stuffed with cutters, spreaders and drilling machines. How many tons of money a state actually needs to fix few such things? How much does a nuke plant cost? And the Tk 8000 crore arms deal with the Russian Federation? And the Tk 28,000 crore 'give-away' to the quick rental tycoons?

Sadly, the vocabulary around our understanding of development is just very wrong. Sadly, we as a nation have gradually separated the idea of social and environmental equity from the vision of development. Sadly, development now means getting rid of the poor than working with the poor.

Our entire intelligentsia has become the by-product of such narrow notion of development. Apparently, a hell lot of 'intelligent' people actually tend to believe that a sharp 8% GDP, a mere middle income standing, a 2000 MW nuke power plant, and some few million HP quality billboards will ultimately solve all the goddamn problems of the country.

It is useful to recall here that a splendidly prosperous Rio De Janerio is also a booming city of slums, dreadful poverty, and gang violence. Exactly half of the population in South Africa lives below the upper bound poverty line, along with its highly prestigious 'upper middle income' status. India itself is a classic combo case of a chaotic level of co-existence between a billionaire-fraternity and some 900 million filthy poor. A deepening of Indian pockets in recent era has also deepened the totality of Indian corruption, malnutrition, farmer's suicide, and even incidents of gang rapes. Let's say, a high-income status does indeed fuel up the condition of the poor, but only in textbooks. This is a clear pattern and it does not look as if it is about to stop.

Yet, the following set of bigoted attitudes, oddly, has been deeply ingrained in our development machinery. They say:

*Economics, water and environment are three completely disconnected spares of life, and environmentalists are bunch of hippies who want to make a combo deluxe out of it.

*Saving rivers, forests and farming land is unrealistic, Utopian, costly, and romantic. It is the job of the super rich nations only.

*We are poor as hell and hence, have no option left but to burn heaps of coal and uranium.

*A sustainable way of living is something that Buddha would do some two thousand years back.

*Who the hell are the economists to talk about sulphur dioxide?

*Gandhi was just a 'backdated', who had no understanding of economies of scale.

*You better shut up if you are not a nuclear scientist.

*Super critical technology is a superman.

Nowadays, it is neither as cynical nor as shocking to prepare an entire nation for inhaling masses of carbon monoxide in exchange of high voltage power grids. Our health, our water, our soil, the quality of our food, and the air we breathe in, are not glossy enough to be a part of the index of development. Our imported 47 inch flat panel LCDs are.

Our delight of getting compared with India

We have been repeatedly compared with a nation in which as many as 960 million poor people live below less than $2 a day, where 300 million people cannot read, where 2.1 million children die before the age of 5, where 32 farmers commit suicide every minute, where 8 million farmers were kicked off their land in a mere decade, and where 400 million people shit in the open. The reality is: a) India is a roaring consumer economy built on the backs of the destitutes. b)  India ranks at the bottom of the world hunger index. c) India is falling behind every other South Asian country (with the exception of Pakistan) in terms of social indicators.

Rather oddly, our urban elite seem to be delighted to be part of such race-to-the-bottom-comparison-complex. The pleasure of beating the 'super-powerdom' of India overlooks the very appalling fact that we live in a country where every third person lives below the poverty line. We live in a country where malnutrition is rife. We live in a nation where six million migrant workers starve themselves to paddle our cycle of economics, and 12 million farmers battle on a daily basis to get a just price. We've created a sensational image of development with a complete disregard of the fact that our capital city is dying, our air quality sucks, our ground water level is dwindling at a terrifying scale, we are a perfect breeding ground for deadly sweatshops, and as many as 50 percent of the children we save at birth remain severely ill-fed and occasional starvers.

Despite inspiring statistics of varying sorts, we seem to have no interest in Sri Lanka and Bhutan. With Sri Lanka having a 100 percent literacy, and Bhutan slamming the absurdity of GDP as a progress measuring tool, our so-called national achievement index would obviously look staggeringly dull. No wonder, we only seem to be 'shining', once compared with a 'starving' nation like India.

'The pathology of apolitical development'

The story of our development is a complex one. There are many pieces to it, there are many layers and moving parts, and a meaningful people's politics that has to emerge out of it.

Through the mainstream media and 'expert' opinion, we arrive at vulgar and dangerous simplicity and a reduced vision of reality on the many issues of development. What is highly agonising is the reduction of political/social/environmental decisions to petty bureaucracy, the ultra glamorization of television, and how compellingly it fictionalises and presents a false notion of progress on screen. It has successfully manufactured a glamour bazaar, and created a camouflage of development utopia. 'Development' and 'progress' have become increasingly divorced from their assumed mandate of fulfilling local aspirations.

The black and white positions that we have taken on the issues of development is the gravest indicator of the country's lost humane values and environmental understanding.

It is a combined pathology of a dehumanised development paradigm and an increasingly centralised and alienated version of a more and more techno-bureaucratic state. We have successfully assembled a narrow society that shuts out uncomfortable voices and is increasingly frightened with any political position that is not part of the middle class well being. Against the backdrop, a more nuanced analysis is, the joggers of development must run a marathon, not a 100 meter sprint.

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Sources of energy alternatives:

Source: রাহমাতুল্লাহ বি. ডি. বাংলাদেশের বিদ্যু জ্বালানি সঙ্কট: সমাধান কি অসম্ভব? সংহতি প্রকাশনী, ২০১১.

রাহমাতুল্লাহ বি. ডি. বাংলাদেশের বিদ্যুত খাতের সংকট, লুটপাট, বিকল্প জ্বালানি শক্তির অপার সম্ভাবনা। বিবিধ। অগাস্ট ২০১৩

Paper presented by Rahmatullah B. D. Former Director General Power Cell. Bangladesh Power Development Board.

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Maha Mirza is a researcher and activist. She is a doctoral student at Bielefeld University, Germany.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher