Abu Naser Khan, executive director of Paribesh Banchao Andolan, talks about the current environmental crisis in Bangladesh with Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree
New Age: What is the current status of environment movement in Bangladesh?
Abu Naser Khan: We have been working to save the environment for a long time now. Our movement and large-scale media coverage helped in building awareness. People are now more aware than before. But awareness is not enough. The way government addresses environmental issues is inadequate.
The government had a few positive initiatives and prominent of them are the enactment of the Food Safety Act 2013, the inclusion of environmental issues in the constitution and bringing amendments to environment laws. All these took place because of our movement. In most cases, our organisation played a pivotal role in the movement for environment protection.
The government has, however, failed to create mass awareness. We have worked to create awareness involving civic groups. In 2009–2010, we held a series of protests to save rivers of Bangladesh. It is because of our protests the question of saving the rivers garnered media attention. People became inspired and came forward to join this civil society movement. In their own way, people took part in the campaign. It has now taken more of an organised shape. The movement to save rivers could drum up support from across the country. In terms of organising the movement, our organisation showed the path. Our work also forced Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan to come forward.
The inclusion of environment issues in the constitution was one of our positive outcomes. Lawmaker Saber Hossain Chowdhury came to support us on the matter. If he had not helped us, it would not have been possible for us to handle the task alone. We were the first to bring the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995 and the Bangladesh Environment Court Act 2010 into a review. We suggested the inclusion of the jury in environment courts. We broached the idea of a national environment commission the way the Human Rights Commission is there. The demand, however, still remains unmet.
When we began this movement, people used to make fun of us and a handful of people rallied to save the environment. The awareness among individuals and institutions has now reached a convincing level.
New Age: You have been involved with environment movement for decades now. What are the major obstacles you have faced?
Abu Naser Khan: A major problem is that our education system is designed to ignore our ecosystem. In the name of Green Revolution, introduced in the Pakistan days, our agriculture fell in the grip of multicultural companies. The short-sighted promotion of fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs to increase farm production was initiated and the system fell in the hands of foreign companies. Knowledge and experiences that our farmers have gathered over years were not considered. We, rather, brought in pesticides and insecticides from abroad and used them without looking into whether they are appropriate for our land. We adopted a western system, which did not necessarily apply to our environment. If their aim had been to boost our agriculture, they would have consulted our farmers, taken their advice and combine modern findings with their knowledge. But it did not happen.
Secondly, environmental disasters started when the World Bank installed deep tube wells for irrigation, which would advance its ownership here. Its aim was not to boost our agricultural production. It, rather, developed as a by-product of its scheme called Green Revolution.
My father was a farmer. He used to keep the best of paddy seeds whereas other farmers use the lowest-quality paddy as seeds. My father had good harvest every year. He used manures and natural crop protection mechanism, which helped him get a good outturn.
We would definitely use the latest farming technology. But it must not be at the cost of our indigenous knowledge. Modern farm technology must be used along with traditional wisdom and local environment.
The difference between traditional knowledge and conventional education has become a predicament for us. Whenever we talked to conventionally, highly educated people, they preferred using western knowledge discarding our local knowledge. This has been a problem.
Another unpleasant issue that we have faced is that some so-called environment campaigners used the platform for their personal gains in the name of consultancy. I received an offer to do the environmental impact assessment for building the campus of the Asian University for Women. But I gently refused as it went against my agenda to build a campus curving a hill. Many requested me to be involved in the consultancy for Dhanmondi Lake and Gulshan Lake. I refused. Affiliation with this movement, thus, brings in opportunities of consultancy for people. Some who are keen on grabbing land and rivers have used these opportunities and came to be associated with this movement.
Many influential people from civil society became involved in the movement when I started in 1995. These people were respected by policy-makers and bureaucrats and these people, thus, landed property easily. This caused a loss to the movement.
Threats from political goons have been a regular problem. During the past caretaker government, land grabbers wanted to make a housing society in the Mirpur Mazar Math area. As I consulted with some government representatives, they suggested that I should stay put. They thought that protests against those people could be dangerous and the country had already by then been in a state of emergency. No one could help if anything would happen to me. I was aware of the situation, yet we went ahead. When we started breaking down the already erected establishment, some political goons came up, pulling out firearms and threatened to shoot us if we did not stop. Local people came to our rescue. They wanted to keep the playground. Even though they had been frightened before, with us being there, they mustered up the courage and started pulling down the illegal establishment. The police rushed in within five minutes and asked us to stop. I confronted the police officer, asked him if he had been on the land grabber’s side. The media supported us then. A few television channels covered the incident live and it made our job easy.
On the bank of the River Buriganga, the army wanted to build a housing complex. It was in around 2001–2002. We went to Sena Kalyan Sangstha to lodge our protest. They almost threw one of us out of the window. We have faced such threatening situations.
New Age: You have since 2005 demanded that encroachment on and pollution of rivers, especially the Buriganga, the Turag, the Balu and the Sitalakkya, should end. But still no major change has happened. What are the main reasons for this situation? What was the government’s role in this regard?
Abu Naser Khan: There are a few issues and the first problem is that the people responsible for river management do not have the right knowledge and awareness of how to do it. If there is the need for a 100-yard bridge, the Local Government Engineering Department builds a 50-yard bridge. They were simply not concerned about the outcomes. We could have taken other measures to boost farm production, but the government, instead, built dams. There was no need for flood control dams everywhere. These unplanned flood control dams resulted in the aggradation of riverbeds. Rivers became separated from canals and it messed up the ecosystem. River borders were wrongly demarcated, which expedited the filling of riverbeds. Everyone involved in the task is responsible for this. The LGED randomly builds culverts where bridges are needed or put pipes where culverts are needed. The bridges on the Buriganga are so low to the water that a tall river vessel may very well hit them. In many cases, we could go for other scientifically-based options, considering out ecosystem. In Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology, they have only 5 per cent of courses covering social science subjects whereas technical or engineering universities the world over have at least 40 per cent. Technology is for people. It is imperative that engineering students at least have a surface-level knowledge of social sciences. For a proper development of the country, we will have to adopt our knowledge of the environment, climate and surroundings and it has to be included in the education system.
For the hopeless condition of rivers that we face today, ignorance and weak legal and institutional infrastructures are to blame to a large extent. The land ministry owns the land but district administration represents them. The local administration has too many other jobs to take care of. So, it does not put in any additional efforts in the issue. The Water Development Board only built dams but there was no authority for rivers. Now that there is the National River Protection Commission, the situation has slightly improved.
There are four types of problems regarding rivers; grabbing, pollution, the filling of riverbeds and water flow. The current status of river encroachment around the capital city is severe. It is not just the Buriganga, the Turag or the Balu, this is common pretty much everywhere. Land-grabbers take the advantage of the infrastructural weakness of relevant committees. People in charge of river protection give in to the pressure of some influential individuals from almost all political parties for personal gains. Dense population, poor infrastructure, poor enforcement of laws, the not-so-effective River Protection Commission, political culture and land grabbing seem to hurdle to positive changes.
The government could not take effective steps in the process. The BNP government of 1991 and the Awami League government of 1996 were not so much concerned about the environment. In comparison, the present government is environmentally cautious. Although we began the environment movement, it became popular much later. By the time people have become more aware and the government started taking notice of this. As the government realised that saving the environment is a public demand, it took steps for work in the sector. But unfortunately, those initiatives could not be properly carried out.
But the authorities are not sincere enough about this. Rivers need to be restored to their original shape. Instead of dredging, we should, rather, dig the rivers when needed. Digging the rivers in the winter is low-cost too. Then again, extensive dredging or digging is not advisable either. Because this does not work without limiting the pollution of the underground water. Leaving the riverbed as it is, we could dig the foreshores. The government often does not take such matters into consideration.
New Age: Paribesh Banchao Andolan has raised its voice against the encroachment on lakes in the capital city and demanded that the 43 canals of the city should be reclaimed. Most of the canals and water bodies have already disappeared. Is it now really possible for the government to reclaim the canals and water bodies?
Abu Naser Khan: There are 43 canals in city corporation areas. There are/were a few hundred more in Greater Dhaka. Although politically influential land-grabbers are the main culprits, the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority can also be blamed for serious negligence in its responsibilities, the city corporations are also to blame too. The prime minister has showed her interest in improving the situation, but land-grabbers are powerful and they continue to flout government order. It is either the government’s failure or a plotted scheme. Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha has failed, and is failing, to its job as well.
New Age: You have also campaigned for the relocation of tanneries from Hazaribagh. Still a large number of tanneries continue at the place. Moreover, the Savar Leather Industry Estate has become a new source of pollution for the River Dhaleswari because the central effluent treatment plant has not yet been completed. Toxic wastes are used to produce poultry feeds. What do you think of this?
Abu Naser Khan: Tanneries at Hazaribagh were one of the prime sources of Dhaka’s pollution. They accounted for about 30 per cent of the city pollution. There was no scope for a central effluent treatment plant here. We wanted the tanneries to be moved to a place where pollution could be controlled. The government wanted to move them inside the Gazipur forest in 2003. We were against the plan. When the government later decided to move them to Savar, it was difficult for us not to agree to the proposal. But we have mentioned that pollution should be controlled and the tanneries should be under a proper planning. We monitored the process almost every month. Major factories have already moved. The Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation has never taken it seriously. The Chinese contractors have not done their job responsibly, consultants from BUET on the central ETP have not done their job properly either. There was a mistake in the government’s plan. The environment department has brought about a catastrophe.
New Age: The capital now faces sound and dust pollution on a massive scale. What are the main reasons?
Abu Naser Khan: We have been creating awareness of dust pollution since 2005. One of the main reasons for dust pollution is irresponsible digging up of roads every now and then. If WASA digs a road for a supply water line, it is supposed to remove the mud from the area. But the mud is left there for months. The infrastructure, in the procession, becomes poor ad roads start breaking down soon, adding to dust pollution. When city corporations fix roads, they do the same thing. Both building and dismantling houses increase dust pollution. Construction materials are carried in open trucks. Wastes gathered from drains by the roads and dusts from brick-breaking machines and building flyovers, etc are also responsible. Neither the contractors nor their employers supervise the process. No additional budget is needed. A proper supervision is all that is needed.
The main sources for sound pollution are an increased number of vehicles on the road and their uncontrolled honking, faulty car engines, generators, factories, and an unsupervised use of PA systems. There are laws to control sound pollution but it is not strictly enforced. Weaknesses in laws are also to be reviewed.
The environment department alone cannot do this, but what it can do is to enforce the laws. We should stop the import of cars with loud horns. The High Court has already asked the government to withdraw hydraulic horns from the market. It, however, continues.
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