Displacement fears fuel South Asia protests over infrastructure projects

MUMBAI/DHAKA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Protests against a power plant in Bangladesh and an industrial zone in southern Sri Lanka highlight growing anger across South Asia at big development projects which displace villagers, analysts and activists said.

Hundreds of villagers protested in the Bangladeshi capital at the weekend against the 1,320-megawatt Rampal power plant being built on 742 hectares (1,834 acres) of land at the edge of the World Heritage Sundarbans mangrove forest.

In Sri Lanka, police used teargas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of protesters who accuse the government of trying to evict thousands of families to provide 15,000 acres (6,070 hectares) of land for Chinese investors.

The Colombo government has denied the claim.

Clashes pitting activists and farmers against governments keen to develop infrastructure to fight poverty and encourage economic growth are likely to become more common in South Asia as demand for scarce land rises, one analyst said.

“Governments face a tough balancing act of luring investors, while at the same time ensuring adequate safeguards for farmers and the environment,” said Bhaskar Roy at think-tank South Asia Analysis Group.

“Nations can’t push for development alone and neglect other concerns,” he said.

Research published in November showed that conflict over land was behind stalled industrial and development projects in India, the regional economic powerhouse, affecting millions of people and putting billions of dollars at risk.


Last year, work on a $2.4-billion coal power plant in Bangladesh backed by a Chinese firm was suspended after four demonstrators were killed in clashes with the police.

But the Dhaka government has indicated it is unlikely to abandon its push to build more coal-fired power plants to meet rising electricity demand, despite the protests.

The Rampal plant, a joint venture between state-run entities Bangladesh Power Development Board and India’s NTPC Ltd., will use new technology to curb environmental impact, said Saiful Hasan Chowdhury, a spokesman for the Bangladeshi company.

Displacement of residents would be minimal, he said.

The coal-fired Rampal plant will directly impact the livelihoods of about half a million people and make millions more vulnerable to natural disasters, according to Mowdud Rahman of Bangladesh lobby group, the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports (NCBD).

About 2,000 families have been forcefully evicted so far from agricultural land and shrimp aquaculture ponds, he said.

“In the name of development, people are being uprooted. They are struggling to save their land and livelihoods, their very way of living,” Rahman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A spokesman for the joint venture, the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Co., said due process had been followed.

“It was mostly barren land,” said Mohammad Anwarul Azim.

“Roughly 150 huts were displaced, and we paid them as per government rules,” he said.