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At least four people were killed and many more injured earlier this month when police opened fire on villagers and activists in southeastern Bangladesh during protests against the construction of two coal-fired power plants.
The violence brings into sharp focus the high stakes of the country's plan for bringing electricity to those who lack it. The government is seeking to drastically increase the amount of energy it produces, but local's fear that power plant projects could lead to potentially thousands of evictions and the razing of schools and religious sites in the densely packed South Asian nation.
'They fired gunshots like they were trying to kill birds.'
Residents and activists in Gandamara, which lies south of the port city of Chittagong, had planned to hold a rally on the grounds of the village's primary school on the afternoon of April 4. But police had already taken up positions on the school grounds by the time the march arrived.
Mohammad Manik lost both his father and uncle.
"When we reached near the school they opened fire," Mohammad Manik said. "They shot my father. When my uncle saw my father wounded, he started wailing and grabbed my dad by his chest, and then police fired at my uncle as well. He did not die from the first shot, so police fired another round of gunshots at my uncle. I saw this with my own eyes. They shot them from close range, maybe ten or twelve yards away."
Abu Ahmed, a local salt farmer who was also at the protest was shot in the leg.
"People from all walks of life were at the rally protesting the coal-fired power plants," he said. "As we approached the school, police opened fire without any provocation. They fired gunshots like they were trying to kill birds."
Ali Nabi is a former member of Gandamara Union Council, the smallest rural administrative and local government units in Bangladesh. He says the police fired as many as 700 rounds.
Several witnesses said that the police were accompanied by armed "goons" working for a Chittagong business tycoon who has bought up land where the power plants are proposed to be built.
Police claim 11 officers were injured by the protestors and told AFP they have filed cases against around 3,200 people for vandalism and assault.
The coal plants will produce 1,224 megawatts of electricity and are financed by Chinese firms SEPCOIII Electric Power and HTG, which will pick up $1.75 billion of the plants' estimated cost of $2.4 billion. The plants are supposed to ease the frequent power cuts of the industrial city of Chittagong, but activists who oppose the project say it will also force the eviction of several thousand people and require demolition of temples and schools.
Shaiful Huq of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources and Ports said several of the group's student activists helped to organize the protest.
"Four of our students got hurt, two of them are seriously injured with bullet wounds," Huq said. "This has not stopped them. People are trying to reorganize right now in the affected villages and there is no way they will allow any company to come in and do this."
Bangladesh is investing heavily in large-scale energy projects. In December, the country signed a deal with Russia to build two nuclear power plants with a combined capacity of 2,400 megawatts — an investment totaling $12.65 billion. The first plant is expected to begin operating by 2022 and the second a year later.
The country currently produces a total of only 8,000 megawatts of electricity and the per capita power consumption averages about 300 kilowatt hours (kWh), compared to 13,000 kWh in the United States.
Around 40 percent of the population is without any access to electricity, according to the Ministry of Power. Natural gas generates two-thirds of today's power, but as demand is growing fast the government is aiming to reach 36,000 megawatts by 2030 through power plant construction.
A majority of that electricity will be coal-fired. And it's the coal projects that are attracting most of the public outrage.
The violence in Gandamara came less than a month after environmental organizations led a 200-mile march from Dhaka to the Sundarbans, the world's biggest mangrove forest, in protest of the government's plans to build two coal-power plants just 14 kilometers from the UNESCO World Heritage-listed forest. Those power plants will generate a combined output of 1,885 MW.
The Sundarbans is an important habitat for endangered species like the Bengal tigers and the only two remaining freshwater dolphin species in Asia: the Irrawaddy river dolphin and the Ganges river dolphin.
A planned coal mine in northern Bangladesh, in Phulbari, has been on hold for eight years. According to local activists, villagers opposed to the project have been continuously harassed by police. At a 2008 rally in Phulbari, three protestors were killed and around 200 injured protesting against the mine which would require the eviction of over 50 villages in the area.
In January 2015, the government fast-tracked the approval of another coal-power plant in Matabari, just south of Gandamara.
These new power plants and the increased access to electricity are important steps on Bangladesh's path toward development. However, as one of the nations in the world most vulnerable to climate change, environmental organizations fear the rush to boost electricity through the use of fossil fuels could be devastating.
"These projects will deteriorate the whole situation", says Shaiful Huq. "We need electricity, but not at the cost of our important wild natural heritage or our precious coastal areas. The government should pursue more sustainable alternatives for meeting the energy needs of this country."
Activists and residents in Gandamara are gearing up for more protests. The former Union Council member Ali Nabi said, "Our movement will continue until Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina revokes the project here."
Follow Axel Kronholm on Twitter: @axelkronholm
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