The Sunderbans, the world’s largest contiguous stretch of mangrove forest, continues to face a rapid pace of environmental degradation because of government negligence towards its biodiversity. The environment department has — as the environment, forest and climate change minister said in the parliament on Saturday — has given clearance to ‘five air-polluting cement factories’ within six kilometres of the forest. Environmental clearance was given to Meghna Cement Mills Ltd, Bashundhara Cement Mills Ltd, Mongla Cement Mills Ltd, Dubai-Bangla Cement Mills Ltd and Holcim (Bangladesh) Ltd. The minister’s statement is a testimony to the fact that the mangrove forest is on the brink of destruction because of government negligence towards its biodiversity. Green activists and civil society criticised the government decision as being ‘irresponsible.’ They said that two of the cement factories had already been in production while the three others would go into production soon. The National Committee for Saving the Sunderbans and Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan condemned the environment department for giving approval to the five air-polluting factories within six kilometers of the forest. Rights activists complained that the environment and forest ministry had not supervised the establishment of hazardous industries within the environmentally critical area with proper strategic environmental assessment.
A Dhaka University applied chemistry and chemical engineering professor said that ash particles to be released by the cement factories would seriously damage the ecology of the forest, these particles would get condensed coming in contact with moisture to increase alkalinity in soil and another impact would be an immediate increase in temperature in nearby areas. A geography and environment teacher of the university said that the cement factories would pollute the environment by releasing liquid wastes, dusts and vapour. The pollutants that the factories would release would adversely affect the vegetation of the forest and that any industry set up within 10 kilometres of the forest would eventually destroy it. Environmentalists doubt whether the factory owners would deploy expensive technologies to minimise the pollution. The Bangladesh Environment Lawyers’ Association termed ‘completely illegal’ the decision to allow any factory within 10 kilometres of the forest and said that the cement factories were the second highest emitters of greenhouse gas and, as such, these factories were placed in the ‘red category’ industry. Many polluting factories were set up either by the government itself or private entrepreneurs who could obtain permission, taking the advantage of loopholes in a government order passed in August 1999 banning the construction and operation of such industries within 10 kilometres of the forest.
Taking into consideration the observations of experts, the government needs to rethink the ‘environmental clearance’ give to the five cement factories near the forest and arrange for their relocation to save the Sunderbans.
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