Tracking the trail

Farooque Chowdhury | Published: 00:07, Mar 26,2021

 
 

— New Age

MARCH 26, 1971, Bangladesh — it was a new dawn on a land exploited and tormented for ages. It was the day Bangladeshis’ decades-long struggle against the neo-colonial state of Pakistan, backed by imperialism, entered a new phase: armed resistance ensued. It was the war for liberation.

The people’s struggle — economic and political, unarmed and armed, constitutional and extra-constitutional — against the neo-colonial state ensued since the early hours of the imposition of the state machine. The struggle was for inalienable rights — freedom, democracy, a society free from exploitation and a dignified and decent life with environmental and ecological rights.

 

Ecology-demolishing murder machine

ENVIRONMENTAL rights were implicit in the demands the people raised throughout their long struggle. The neo-colonial economy the state had as its base was wreaking havoc in the environment and ecology of the people.

For example, the neo-colonial state’s military spending was at people’s cost. It was draining the resources that the people produced. Its outputs: the infliction of fears, coercion and control. The war machine itself was demolishing ecological systems in areas as it occupied farm lands, forests and hills for its barracks, armoury and war/killing games. The neo-colonial state’s unproductive killing machine was a signature of capital’s environmental destruction. The state of the environment stood doomed as the amount of money guzzled by the neo-colonial state’s military machine was the labour appropriated from Bangladesh farms and factories while the machine’s sole motive was to coerce-control-condemn the people who were appropriated to have power for the machine. That money was wastage in terms of the environment and ecology, in terms of people.

The neo-colonial state unremittingly propagated that the cash-consuming monster was against external enemy — a blatant lie exposed in 1958, since early-March 1971, and especially, on March 25, 1971, the moment the state unleashed the monster on a nine-months-long genocidal military campaign against the Bangladesh people. The machine’s manpower, soldiers, in Bangladesh was increased four-folds within March 1971, and hundreds of military camps and bulwarks, bunkers, observation posts and torture chambers were set up/constructed within months. Hundreds of killing fields cropped up. Military vehicles, dynamites, explosives used? Now, it is difficult to calculate. The carbon footprint of the murdering machine is easy to assume. It was a tale of bullets, gunpowder, violation of honour and murder on a mass scale and the destruction of the environment and ecology.

Farm lands went fallow for seasons and factories slept silently as the occupying Pakistan army continued its genocidal spree, as dead bodies were strewn here and there, as hundreds of thousands of looted and burnt-out houses stood witness to the genocide. The environmental catastrophe was unprecedented in the land.

At the conclusion of that phase of the war for liberation, the land had to rehabilitate millions of internally displaced persons and about 10 million refugees returning home from India. The multitude had nothing other than a few clothes and skillets, plastic sheet to shelter from shower and the sun, but no sickle, no hammer and no hurricane lamp. The displaced people’s abandoned homes were nothing but mounds of mud as earthen plinths and foundations stood naked during the monsoon months after the occupying army burned to ashes the thatched houses. The environmental cost was huge.

The extent of the environmental destruction, partly, is in the report of the UN mission led by ambassador Erna Sailer: people deprived of productive assets, burned villages, slaughtered cattle. The agricultural economy was affected in four principal ways: an immediate and substantial decline in the production of rice, jute and tea; rundown of stocks of food, seed and inputs; destruction/damage of production capacity including draft animals and implements, fishing boats and nets, irrigation pumps; loss of transport facilities and workshops of agricultural services and interruption of important land and water projects. There were losses of motor vehicles, country boats and ocean-going vessels, about half of the fleet of trucks and buses, and damage/destruction of many road and railways bridges including the two main bridges linking the east and west sides of the country. (Report on the Mission of High-level United Nations Consultants to Bangladesh, March–April 1972, UN General Assembly, April 1972) ‘Economic activity has declined in all sectors, development has been reversed, there have been massive movements of population and overall the economic situation is worse than at any time in the past history of the country. The ten months […] between March 1971 and January 1972 have brought additional physical, social and political difficulties, and have given to long-standing problems of chronic poverty, an additional dimension in immediate human suffering.’ (ibid)

The government estimated that together with 4,000 improved dairy cows and a large number of indigenous dairy cattle, more than half a million pairs of bullocks were slaughtered or they disappeared. As of July 1972, local storage depots held only 97,000 tonnes of food grains — enough only for 24 days of normal offtake on the average including a few of the LSDs with stock only for 3–8 days of normal distribution.

The value of assets destroyed or lost during 1971 amounts to Tk 203 million in the industrial sector, of which Tk 135 million was in public sector industries. The foreign exchange component of the total damage was estimated at Tk 104 million (Tk 64 million in the public sector). (Government of Bangladesh, The Annual Plan 1972/73)

Indirect and non-measurable consequences of the war were immense. By the end of 1971, most of the manufacturing industries stood still. The people had to incur these environmental costs.

The genocidal military campaign that the invading Pakistan armed forces began in Bangladesh was itself an act of destruction of the environment and ecological systems in all areas and at all levels. Monstrous with widespread arson in towns and villages, millions of people driven away from habitats, gunboats plying along riverbanks bombarded and strafed riverside villages, corpses rotting along village paths and under bamboo groves, and floating in canals and rivers it was. In many burnt down villages deserted by their inhabitants, rats, snakes, foxes, jackals and birds were difficult to find. In the killing grounds, packs of panicked persons fleeing the murder spree faced their destiny designed by the murderers — death; and streams of blood waited in a clotted condition for rain to wash down.

Consequently, the cost the environment and ecology paid is unparallel in the country’s history of destruction, loot and murder by invaders and occupiers, colonial kings and their lieutenants. This environmental and ecological destruction is not/least discussed explicitly in environmental and ecological terms although it is part of the environmental and ecological history of the people although this is one of the brute parts of environmental destruction in this land.

 

For a benchmark

A LOOK at the economy, even a part, is essential to grasp the state of the environment in the land. This can act as a partial benchmark for having a comparative picture of the environment as the economy constituted/impacted the environment and ecology. So, the following data are important.

During those days, agriculture employed about 80 per cent of the population, and generated about 60 per cent of the GDP; and the economy’s major industries were agriculture-based. The production of food grains, mainly rice, accounted for 82 per cent of the production of all major crops. But it could not feed the population — 72 million in 1969–1970. The economy’s urban population was five million. The economy turned increasingly dependent on food grains import: 1.55 million tonnes in 1969–1970 from 170,000 tonnes in 1955–1956. During the November–March dry season, about 80 per cent of the cultivated land went fallow due to lack of soil moisture. The agrarian economy’s consumption of chemical fertiliser increased to about 306,000 tonnes in 1970–1971 from about 100,000 tonnes in 1964–1965, and its use per cropped acre increased to 9.5lb nutrients in 1969–1970 from 3.6lb in 1964–1965. In the area of plant protection, the spray acreage with ground operation increased to about 8.7 million in 1970–1971 from 4.3 million in 1964–1965 while chemical pesticides used in 1965–1966 was 3,000 tonnes, which increased to about 5,000 tonnes in 1969–1970. In 1970–1971, about 1,600 deep tube wells irrigated about 96,000 acres. The cropping intensity percentage was 120 per cent on average ending in 1959–1960 and increased to 146 per cent in 1969–1970. The forest coverage was about 5.5 million acres in 1969–1970. (Sources include the GoB, MoA, DoA/AE, Plant Protection Division; WDB, Land and Water Use Directorate; Planning Commission)

‘Per capita consumption of steel didn’t exceed 6kg, cement 5kg, sugar 2.5kg, cotton cloth 7 yards and power 13kwh. In the area of electricity consumption, industrial uses represented 70 per cent, commercial use 15 per cent, 10 per cent for domestic use, and only 5 per cent for agriculture. Only about 250 villages had electricity connection while about 300 irrigation pumps used electricity.’

The motor vehicles in use in 1970 were about 68,000, less than one vehicle per 1,000 inhabitants, of which 40 per cent was motorcycles and auto-rickshaws. The number of cars in 1970 was about 23,074. The road network was 18,000 miles. Private capital dominated the road transport industry with mostly small capital owning only one vehicle and the largest fleets were with no more than 10–12 vehicles. The main mechanised cargo routes were about 1,600 miles perennially and 1,900 miles during the monsoon. In 1967–1968, there were 1,526 inland mechanised vessels including 112 steam-powered crafts. Private capital owned about 80 per cent of the fleet. Most of the mechanised vessels were launches with a total registered capacity of 110,000 passengers while the dumb fleet provided over 80 per cent of the cargo carrying capacity of 260,000 tonnes. In 1970, the length of railway routes was 1,775 miles and of metalled roads 2,398 miles. (Sources include GoB, MoP, Bangladesh Transport Survey, Transport Statistics, January 1972; Road Traffic Survey 1971, vol I, January 1972; GoEP, Road Transport Enquiry Committee, Report, July 1970)

At the start of the new state, 10 state-run corporations were entrusted with some 254 enterprises that included 67 jute, 64 cotton and 15 sugar mills. The Survey on Small and Household Industries in […] 1970, conducted in 1969–1970, encompassed 330,000 establishments, which covered only rural areas. In 1969–1970, the number of registered/reporting factories included food 254, tobacco 16, textiles 387, apparel and footwear 78, leather and leather products 70, chemical and chemical products 221, basic metal 21, metal products 110, non-metallic mineral products 36, wood 33, paper and paper products 17, printing and publishing 88, rubber products 2, transport equipment 25, electrical machinery and supplies 18, other industries 57. (Sources include GoB, Statistical digest of Bangladesh, 1970–71; and Census of Manufacturing Industries, 1969/70)

The economy Bangladesh inherited from the neo-colonial state of Pakistan had its bearing on the country’s environment and ecology. The production relations were exploitative, semi-feudal in some areas and capitalist in the rest. In the words of Mahbub ul Haq, a leading economist of Pakistan, the state that fully controlled Bangladesh up to Bangladesh’s declaration of independence on March 26, 1971 had the following policy:

‘It is well to recognize that economic growth is a brutal, sordid process. There are no short cuts to it. The essence of it lies in making the laborer produce more than he is allowed to consume for his immediate needs, and to invest and reinvest the surplus thus obtained. [….] The underdeveloped countries must consciously accept a philosophy of growth and shelve for the distant future all ideas of equitable distribution and welfare state. It should be recognized that these are luxuries, which only developed countries can afford. [….] Historcally, growth has never been “balanced”: there have always been leading and lagging sectors as well as regions.’ (The Strategy of Economic Planning: A Case Study of Pakistan, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1963)

‘Large profits were earned by manufacturers, mainly from West Pakistan at the expense of East Pakistan’s farmers. [….] The complex physical environment [in East Pakistan/Bangladesh] demanded careful experimentation and study. Instead, conventional infrastructure programs were devised. Typically, the environment was looked on as something to be bent to the purposes of development and not vice-versa. Rivers were looked on as obstacles to roads, not as channels for boats. Dams were constructed without thought to the havoc this played with the breeding of fish.’

The statement above is a mirror of imbalance: manufacturers’ profits at farmers’ expense, environment distorted in the name of ‘development’. This, in brief, was an important factor influencing the environment the newly born country inherited.

 

Changes

TODAY, March 26, 2021, the scene has changed in terms of coverage/quantity/percentage/intensity, type, etc. The changes are in all areas related to the physical environment. These include population, poverty, agriculture, chemical fertiliser, pesticide, trade, industry, chemical-filled/laced solid waste, effluents and smoke, infrastructure, energy/renewable energy, fuel, market, health care and medicine, the quality of food, air, soil and water, housing, education, ground water level, flora, fauna, urban green space, noise pollution, grabbing of public land, sand, water bodies and other commons, felling of forest trees. People’s Report on Bangladesh Environment 2001 (Atiur Rahman, M Ashraf Ali and Farooque Chowdhury, ed, Unnayan Shamannay and UPL, Dhaka, 2001, in two volumes, supported by the UNDP), its following report (People’s Report 2002–2003, Bangladesh Environment, Dhaka, 2004), reports on slum, working condition, labour, urban and hill areas, forest life, IUCN’s Red Book series (Md Anwarul Islam, Mahmud-ul Ameen and Ainun Nishat, ed, Red Books of Threatened Mammals, Fishes, Birds, Animals, Amphibians and Reptiles of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 2000), Engineering Concerns of Flood (M Ashraf Ali, Salek M Seraj and Sohrabuddin Ahmad, ed, BUET, Dhaka, August 2002), many reports by national and international public and non-governmental organisations tell the state of the physical environment in Bangladesh. Bangladesh news media reports also tell the condition.

The areas of organisation, policy planning, legislation/law, initiatives, accountability and transparency, verdicts/rulings of the courts of law related to environment, and awareness about environment and environment-activism have also experienced changes, which are positive to many extents. A number of verdicts by courts of law are significant in terms of securing the environment. The enactment of much legislation related to environment is there.

A few of the changes are negative while a few are positive and significant while a few are irreversible. Hills/hillocks, for example, devoured/demolished cannot be replaced, and the awareness of the environment cannot be wiped out. Rather, the awareness will widen and sharpen; articulation will get specified and forceful.

The present state of the environment will be at least partly clear if (1) smoke spewed and effluents discharged by industrial units along rivers, water and fish from these rivers and the rivers near/around major cities; farm land, hills/hillocks, top soil, rivers, water bodies, and forests consumed of grabbers; schools; medical wastes, dumping grounds of urban and industrial wastes leaching toxic elements into ground water; markets of food, ‘beauty’ products, chemical pesticide, etc, health care; environment-harming technology; urban and industrial areas, and living and health condition of the poor including the working class are surveyed/tested; and (2) the economy/dominant production relation/market, and its actions with/impact on environment-ecology are examined.

The findings/results will show the state of the Bangladesh environment. Bangladesh media’s environment related reports, carried almost every day, present a mostly dismal or alarming picture.

Climate crisis, now a reality made unavoidable by the world capitalist order, has overheated the entire environment. It is almost impossible to find a single area of the environment in the country which will not be adversely affected by climate crisis, one of the biggest threats the country faces. In 1971 or 1972, the question of climate crisis did not appear in most mindsets and knowledge-maps.

The issue of environment was absent from Bangladesh in 1971, as the country was fully engaged in its war for liberation. The 1972 pronouncement by Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India, at the UN Conference on Human Environment, the first world conference to make environment a major issue, at Stockholm was startling at that time. She, while addressing the conference, questioned, ‘Are not poverty and needs the greatest polluters?’

Now, this concept is neither unknown nor disregarded as well as discussed and dissected are poverty’s connections to the environment and pollution. However, the source of poverty goes unidentified/wrongly identified. Discussions/dissections mostly mention manifestations of poverty, like ‘lack of’, ‘non-access’, ‘non-entitlement’, etc, as poverty’s source while exploitation, the source, moves mirthfully — a completely confusing business that cunningly camouflages the culprit.

There are the issues of capitalist social relations, market’s dominance, wasteful spending, inequitable distribution including loss of fertile cropland and rich water bodies for residences of the wealthy and powerful. These, essentially capitalism, decisively devour the environment, as ‘[t]he economic development of capitalism has always carried with it social and ecological degradation — an ecological curse.’ (John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift, Capitalism’s War on the Earth, MR Press, New York, 2011)

There is ecological imperialism. With its world order — systems/regimes/connections/controls — ecological imperialism is taking its toll on the environment in the peripheral economy. ‘[E]cological imperialism has meant that the worst forms of ecological destruction, in terms of pillage of resources and the disruption of sustainable relations to the earth, fall on the periphery rather than the centre. Ecological imperialism allows imperial countries to carry out an “environmental overdraft” that draws on the natural resources of periphery countries. [….] The nature of ecological imperialism is continually to worsen ecological conditions globally.’ (ibid) But, the issue of ecological imperialism is mostly absent in discussions and actions — a crippling impairment approaching the issue.

The ideas/approaches overwhelming the discussions and actions on the environment are:

(1) narrow/compartmentalised,

(2) the source of the problem snubbed,

(3) the fact rebuffed that the poor, the masses of people suffer most due to environmental degradation although their carbon footprint is the least, and they pay the highest. The arrangement enriches a few, the exploiters.

The environment is not only rivers or butterflies, forest, bird songs, wild life, solitude or unravaged rural life, as it cannot be compartmentalised, as all its areas are connected while humans are always its centre. The human vaporises when the profit-maximising capitalist economy acts with the environment, as the environment is a collective space, a commons while capital’s concern is profit, and clutching the commons profits capital. Most discussions on and activism with the environment do not consider the capitalist economy’s antagonistic relation with the environment as the kingpin.

Consequently, the source continues aggravating the environment, which, if the present pattern persists, may turn the environment unliveable for all forms of life. It will be tracking a trail christened carry-on-till-cataclysm-kills-all.

 

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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