How well is Bangladesh’s
Advocate Rizwana Hasan from BELA shares her views about Environmental awareness in Bangladesh, focusing on the pollution in the Buriganga, the illegal development of wetlands, the poaching of endangered tigers in the Sundarbans, and the incapability of existing laws in protecting our environment.
Jennifer Ashraf Kashmi
Toxic waste from dead ships. Despite all our environmental
laws man-made pollution of our nvironment continues
unabated. Photo: Zahedul I Khan
Environment protection and conservation has become worldwide issues of concern and awareness. “Go Green” campaigns in all the developed countries and the increasing popularity of organic items speak for themselves. Bangladesh, as one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change, has a lot at stake. While there is not much we can do to prevent natural disasters, there is a huge gap in public awareness regarding environmental degradation that is man-made and that can be avoided. Everywhere one looks, one can see evidence of vandalism, defilement and abuse of the environment. Does that mean that we, as a nation, are not aware of the consequences of our actions? Advocate Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Chief Executive of the Bangladesh Environm-ental Lawyers Association (BELA), has been fighting on behalf of environmental issues since July 1993. When asked about how seriously she thinks the issue of environmental conservation is addressed in Bangladesh, Rizwana says, “I think we have made enough noise in Bangladesh about the environmental issues. The contamination and pollution of the various resources have reached such a stage where you simply cannot ignore it. But to answer your question very honestly, I would say that we have not done much to arrest the sources of pollution, to punish the wrongdoers, to create precedent of good environmental governance. Having said that, and with all the frustrations we have as environmental activists and advocates, I must also say that not a single day goes by when you will not find a newspaper that doesn’t say something about the environment. Ninety-eight per cent of these say bad things about the environment, but there is two per cent that actually reports some progress, talks about some positive things.”
While there are numerous Environmental Acts and legal provisions to help protect the environment, the sad fact remains that many of them are continually been violated. Developers are still filling up waterbodies illegally and using them to build apartment building complexes, poachers are still being arrested while attempting to illegally kill endangered Royal Bengal Tigers in the Sundarbans, and massive factories are still using our rivers and waterways as dumping grounds, whilst also releasing poisonous toxic chemicals into our atmosphere.
Advocate Rizwana Hasan.
Photo: Zahedul I Khan
So does the problem lie with the legal framework in Bangladesh? “Today when I opened the Daily Star, I was also happy to see that a drive is being regularly undertaken by the Department of Environment against the polluters. That shows that there are still some people in the system who actually love the country, who would undertake drives against the most powerful ones – the “untouchables” in our country, those who you cannot actually subject to any process of law. So yes, there are some good things being done but, compared to the magnitude of the problem and compared to the seriousness of the crisis, we haven’t really done much at all,” Rizwana states. “Although we have the laws in hand, the Department of Environment, and an Environmental Court in Bangladesh which is supposed to deal with envi ronmental cases – despite all these, do we see our rivers and waterways being freed of pollution? Do we see the industries, or even 80 percent of them running with ETPs? The answer, sadly, is “No”.
The burning question which every one of us should be asking ourselves is whether our individual and cumulative level of awareness is sufficient enough to enable us to recognise the consequences of our actions. Since awareness is mainly spread through education and most of our population do not have the proper required education, would that be an obstruction to environmental progression? Rizwana Hasan disagrees with this concept. “I would say that uneducated people are much more aware of their actions. In fact, even if they are not aware, their consumption pattern and their livelihood pattern is much more sustainable than the way of life of the educated.”
“Let me pose another question to you. When we would try to distinguish between uneducated and educated people, aren’t the people in our government educated? Why would they then allow destruction of the parks and greenery for the constructions of markets? It’s not about education; it’s about your awareness of your own surroundings. A forest dweller will never destroy a forest, a timber trader will do that. A farmer, the moment he sees he isn’t getting enough production, will try to think of his strategies and attempt to overcome the crisis on his own. He doesn’t have the backup of the government with him. For the ship breakers the government exists, but who exists for the farmer? Where is the Department of Fisheries and livestock to protect the rights of the coastal fishermen who have lost their livelihood all because of the ship-breaking operations?”
With Environment being such a broad issue, sometimes it’s hard to pin-point a specific case and realise that it would have to be assigned top priority for the moment. However, there is little dispute that the destruction on the Buriganga river should be one of them. Rizwana Hasan shares her views on the topic. “People are crying for the protection of the Buriganga river. Educated people are not allowing that to happen. We do have ministers who have PhD degrees and they are making a mockery of the law. The law does not allow you to give the polluter more time “because that is what is practical”. The law requires you to do certain things and to do it right away. So the educated ministers are allowing the Hazaribag tannery owners to continue to pollute the Buriganga river, because it is ‘not practical’ to set up an ETP in Savar in three years. And in that process, 19 years have already passed.”
“The Hazaribag tannery has an estimated export earning of 1600 crore taka per year. The government has taken up a project of 1200 crore taka for bringing back life to the Buriganga. The government has a separate fund of 25 crore taka for cleaning up the bed of the Buriganga river. They have also spent 500 crore taka for developing a site in Savar for relocation of the tannery. However the tannery owners, who earn so much money (1600 crore taka per year) for the country, do not have the money to pay for their affluent business plans or for the recovery plan. Now the government will have to spend another 300 crore taka to set up an ETP in Savar for the recovery plan. Thus an overall amount of 2,025 crore taka is being spent to help save an industry which has an export earning of 1,600 crore taka.” So where does the government receive the money for this fund? “Taxpayer’s money,” Rizwana confirms. “I haven’t even calculated the health costs of the people who are living in Hazaribag, or the loss suffered by the fishermen who used to fish in the Buriganga. And, because the Buriganga can no longer supply water for us to drink, in the next two years Bangladesh, specifically Dhaka, will face a serious crisis with regards to drinking water. However, when you approach the Court and tell the Court that we want this industry to shut down and we have been shouting since 1991, the tannery owners will then again approach the Court and state that they have a loan of 100 crore or so with the Bank, which is again Taxpayer’s money. So at the end of the day it’s our money which is paying for the destruction of our Environment.”
Bangladesh has plenty of legal acts and legislations, which have been enacted with the aim of protecting and conserving the environment for the current and future generations. With the constant violations of all these laws happening so frequently, how have the Courts decided to punish the wrongdoers? Are there any landmark environmental cases in the history of the Bangladesh legal system? “No,” answers Rizwana talking about filling up of the wetlands. There is a specific law against filling up the wetlands. We also know that all the wetland projects of the developers are illegal, except two. However, not a single person so far has been tried or sentenced to jail for illegally filling up wetlands.
River pollution and illegal wetlands encroachment aside, another shocking news for Bangladeshi citizens was the arrest of the poachers who killed three of the Sundarbans Royal Bengal Tigers, who are already on the Endangered Species list. Despite the existence of the Wildlife Act in Bangladesh, protecting our Tigers, how could this be allowed to happen? “Once again, it’s a question of money,” Advocate Rizwana says. “However, this time it’s money for the Forest Department. Without conniving with the Forest Department it is impossible to even enter that forest area to poach the Tigers. I would say it’s the failure of the system due to chronic and almost incurable corruption. We have all been talking about the corruption of the Forest Department but the corrupt ones are still holding onto their high posts and they are doing just fine. The poachers would have made a lot of profit, had they not been caught. Every part of a tiger’s body has a special price, and it’s even more costly as it’s prohibited. The task for us here is to find out the original trader, for whom the poachers were actually working. The sad part is that the poor hired poachers are always the ones who get caught. The original trader who ordered for this to be executed, and the people conniving in the happening of the event – they never get caught. There is a law in Bangladesh which prohibits the killing of these animals, unless they pose a risk to your life.”
In spite of the existence of law protecting the environment, many of the current Acts, Ordinances and Rules in existence first came into existence very early in time. A lot of these laws when enacted in times when pollution, poaching, encroachment and many other environmental concepts were either partially or completely alien concepts. So does Bangladesh need to update its legal framework? Advocate Hasan disagrees. “At least in the colonial laws the concept was clear. You could clearly see the ‘intention’ of the law. However, in the Bangladeshi laws we can’t see the intention clearly. For example, the government is now trying to enact a law protecting eco management – the ‘Wildlife Act’. They are actually having a separate area set for eco management, but they are calling it the ‘Wildlife Act’. I have nothing against the project, provided it can be rated as being very successful. The government, in the name of wildlife protection, is passing an Act which has very little to do with protecting wildlife but more to do with managing areas, including marine areas, which doesn’t have wildlife. Therefore, the intention of the law is not clear.”
“However, there is a constant need to update our laws, because each generation sets its own priorities,” Rizwana states. “Thus a law drafted during the Pakistani or British regime may not reflect all the aspirations of independent Bangladesh. The Forest Act 1927 is still my preferred Forest Act, rather than this draft which has been produced by the independent government of Bangladesh, which is going to be suicidal for Bangladesh. We are just going to lose whatever forests we have. In 1927 there was no concept of protection or conservation of forests. In today’s age, when we are attempting to protect and conserve, we can now have a separate administrative law, the way India has put into practice. A combination of the administrative and conservation law would give people the best of the both. The fact that laws were drafted in colonial periods doesn’t make it redundant in all the cases, some old issues still persist, and amendments should be made to address the new issues cropping up. The fact that laws are not being amended indicated that laws are not being practiced.”
The sad fact remains that none of the laws currently in existence actually protect the Environment in Bangladesh. “Where do you see the success?” she asks. A genuine question which lacks a genuine answer. It seems that in order to protect and conserve our environment, for both our current and future generations, drastic steps will have to be undertaken, and done so soon. The time has come when we all need to take steps to prevent environmental desecration, both as a nation and also as individuals. Otherwise the time may come very soon in the near future, when it’s already too late to reverse our actions.