Suffering Sundarban

By: Dr Anurag Danda
In an ecological zone that is prone to climate change disasters, protection and conservation should be encouraged - rather Sundarban has turned into a renewable hotbed where every conceivable renewable energy experiments are undertaken at the risk of destroying more of whatever little is left.
Environment Renewable Energy

The Sundarban has the distinction of being the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world. It represents the largest mangal diversity with 70 mangal plant species and provides habitat for the threatened Royal Bengal Tiger apart from supporting a 4.1 million population struggling for a living. In an ecological zone that is prone to climate change disasters, protection and conservation through proven and workable solutions should be encouraged and developed. Rather it has turned into a renewable hotbed where every conceivable renewable energy experiments are being undertaken at the risk of destroying more of whatever little is left. A brief account of field observations of various so called ‘success stories’ of West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency (WBREDA), followed by a discussion on the recent proposal of Durgaduani Khal tidal power project in a creek adjoining Gosaba Island in the Sundarban region of West Bengal is presented.

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Koylapara Power Station

A fairly substantive programme, the Station serves as viable options for consumptive purposes such as lighting. However, these cannot usher in increased commercial productivity with heavy machinery, except that certain work might get enhanced due to availability of light, such as zari, during the evening and night and perhaps markets can operate for longer hours than earlier. But the downside is that these power stations are among the more expensive options compared to other renewable-barring tidal of course. To be a truly renewable option, it is not clear how battery banks necessary for such power stations can be replaced, given the current tariff structure and the economic capability of the community. Additionally, since the battery banks use wet cells (lead acid), disposal is an environmental issue. Possibly, till the time grid power reaches Koylapara, it is an option better than darkness and kerosene lamps.

 

Gosaba Biomass gasifier

This is the first biomass based power generation system in the Sundarban, currently providing power for about 12 hours. These power stations do not have the limitations of solar power stations and are more like small standalone diesel power stations. The fuel is a mixture of diesel and combustible producer gas which can be produced from various types of biomass. Wood chips are used in Gosaba. However sustained supply of wood biomass and procurement of non-mangrove wood is an issue. The WBREDA may recall that activists had raised their concerns about not having a captive plantation in place before the commissioning of the project. Wood from unspecified locations, damaging the already stressed ecosystem, made its way to the Station till at last a non-endemic set of trees were planted, causing further stress to the fresh water strained regime. Today, in the absence of a sustained supply, these power stations tend to run on diesel – thus cannot qualify as renewable. Also WBREDA is not very transparent when it comes to the nitty gritty of quantifying the amount of fossil fuel replacement. It seems that the claims that WBREDA makes regarding these gasifier power stations would not stand the test of independent verification.

 

Lighting at Kultoli and Basanti

Basanti and Kultoli blocks can now be directly reached by road. Road bridges at crucial points such as Sonakhali (in case of Basanti) and Petkulchand (in case of Kultoli) have become operational. It is only a matter of time that grid connections will reach these regions. Of course, political equations could make that process much longer. As is usual, areas that vote for the opposition receive facilities later than areas that vote for the ruling party or the coalition.

 

Gangasagar and Fraserganj wind-diesel hybrid

The hybrid concept is a little strange as it is difficult to ascertain whether the power fed to the grid, is wind or diesel. If the locals are to be believed the wind blades hardly turn. Also, the sense of placing a wind station at a cyclone prone area is ambiguous. It can be most certainly said that such stations are using more diesel than wind and a fact finding mission can set the records right.

 

Durgaduani Tidal Power Project

The WBREDA is currently in the process of constructing India’s first tidal power plant namely the 3.65 MW ‘Durgaduani Mini Tidal Power Project’ with the objective of supplying power to eleven villages of Gosaba and Balibirajnagar Islands, with a mammoth cost outlay amounting to 3803 lakhs. In March 2004, a Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) was prepared by a Kolkata based company – Development Consultants Ltd. The Consultants in their Report state that for the implementation of the project, the West Bengal State mainland power grid must be extended to the project area in Durgaduani.

Following this Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), Government of India, requested National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd. (NHPC) to explore the possibilities for implementing Tidal   Power Project in West Bengal. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between NHPC and WBREDA for hiring an international consultant for updating and upgrading a Detailed Project Report (DPR). This DPR is however not available to the public as officials maintain that this report is confidential.

Workings in the Sundarban for decades, scholars like us need to place our qualms in perspective. The tidal project is being constructed in an area surrounded by the Tiger Reserve, Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary and dense forests. Entire Sundarban falls in the Coastal Regulation Zone I (CRZ-I) , which implies that it is the most sensitive CRZ and activities in such zones much be undertaken with great caution. However, it is understandable that the implementation of a project of this scale would necessarily involve uprooting of some mangrove vegetation.

Secondly, the project involves the construction of sluice gates at either end of the Durgaduani creek connecting two rivers. The dynamics of flow still remains unfathomable and its understanding elusive – so once the canal is blocked the movement of water in a depositional area is bound to be restricted, with perhaps unrectifiable effects on geographical space. In fact, the EIA report states ‘the structural effects of the power plant in the long run may promote artificial structure formation in the river’. This would harm marine life and the hydrodynamics in the Sundarban, which in turn would adversely affect the livelihood of the thousands of fishermen. Further, to meet needs of construction, including concreting work there will be demand for freshwater, which will make matter worse since all of Sundarban depends on groundwater, an already stressed resource in the salinity prone islands.

There are only about 280 tigers in this region and the project has the potential to adversely impend the tiger habitat. It also poses a threat to a number of other rare and endangered species. Forests and wildlife in India are protected under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The Biodiversity Act, 2002 also provides for the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of biological resources. We cannot work at cross purposes, to destroy what we pledge to protect. The proposed project is not ecologically, commercially or practically viable. As the implementation of the project through a single basin ebb generator necessitates extension of the mainland power grid to an area very close to where the tidal power plant is located, it is evident that electricity can be provided to these regions, even devoid of a tidal power plant.

Endnote

The planners, it seems, have not adequately assessed the possible consequences of the tidal project to the unique ecology of the Sundarban. The total potential for generation of power through the project is enough to light up just about 15,000 homes, the cost prohibitive and the appropriate safeguards missing.

However, the need to provide electricity to households in remote villages cannot be ignored. But the so called beneficiaries of the project, namely the people in certain villages of the Sundarban, are unaware of the consequences of the project and that they have the choice of getting electricity even without the project. In fact the possibility of extension of the State’s main power grid may be assessed independent of the project.

As a pro development activist, the elusiveness of WBREDA in providing accurate statistics about the renewable installations in Sundarban is exasperating. Further, projects such as the wind power station in Fraserganj and elsewhere were begun on a demo mode with a view to invite replication from private entrepreneurs. Not a single private party replication of wind power projects in the State points towards ill assessment of wind energy potential, thus a waste of public money.  No doubt the organisation has the well-being of the remote Sundarban villages in perspective, but rather than devoting itself to the appropriate functioning of substantive projects, it dots its path with varied dubious achievements. Why the Sundarban, an ecologically sensitive zone, should turn into an experiment ground for every conceivable renewable project is beyond comprehension – the latest go ahead on the tidal project no doubt needs a rethink to say the least.

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