Air pollution & governance
by Azra Parveen

IT is now a commonplace knowledge that air pollution is mainly caused by uncontrolled emission (exhaust fumes) of motor vehicles. Dhaka's poor air quality is estimated to cause more than 5,000 deaths annually with the health costs of PM/O (fine particulate matter) pollution. Apart from PM 10, the main pollutants in the city are lead, carbon monoxide (CO1) and hydro carbon. And the principal polluters are auto rickshaws, trucks and buses of the transport-related fraction, some 35 per cent is related to PM 0 and 48 per cent to hydrocarbon mainly generated by vehicles with two-stroke engines (using a direct mix of mobil and petrol), particularly by baby-taxis, tempos and motor cycles.

Though 35,000 baby-taxis were officially registered in Dhaka, the actual number in operation was believed to be much higher. The main thrust of air pollution control measures should therefore be directed toward these categories of vehicles. As emission levels of pollutants from in-use vehicles were dependent on vehicular and fuel characteristics and level of maintenance as well as operating conditions, any strategy for reducing air pollution in the city must address these issues. In fact, a correct use of lubricants reduces emission levels. However, it seems there is an absence of strong measures to improve the vehicle registration system for better control of 3-wheelers in operation. Relevantly, the number of vehicles with and without proper papers has risen in and around the city to such an extent that road accidents are galore and these claim a life a day in city. Road accidents cost Bangladesh about US$ 250 million per year in terms of mortality and morbidity. The major causes of accidents are faulty vehicles, road design, traffic signals and signs, disobeying of traffic rules, illiteracy, faulty issuance of d/license and vehicle fitness, poor enforcement of law, overspeeding and alcoholism-And the consequence of all this has not been benign at all.

Anyway, toward the end of the last month the government decided to phase out all baby-taxis which are the prime culprit in making Dhaka the most air-polluted and one of the more cancer inducing cities of the world. People have been crying out for a solution for decades but nothing has yet been done. Although most regimes promised action they backed off in the serious end.

One waits to see how serious the government of the day is about this bit of policy making. However, it is a more complex problem than reducing polybags.

That two-stroke engines used by baby taxis have no future is well-known. Experts have said that the structure of this contraption is such that palliative measures like converting engines and using less pollutant fuel will make little difference. One simply will have to do away with them to prevent pollution. As simple as that. Meanwhile they have to be taken off the roads with a strict deadline. Authorities have in the past taken one step forward but then taken two steps backward; hence the concern.

However, taking smoke-belching baby taxis off the roads certainly go a long way in solving the environment problem but it leaves the issue of urban mass transit and public transportation unresolved. Doing away with rickshaws has made the traffic problem less and the immediate limit on baby taxis will also improve the situation but public movement will require more attention. The government will certainly have to ensure a mass transit system that is able to tackle the large commuter traffic be it through higher number of buses or circular railway systems. Since baby taxis cater to the middle class, this is also a politically sensitive issue. There has to be a viable option for them along with the phase outing of these vehicles. All this means that a certain degree of planning for an Urban Transport Project is vitally necessary or the resolution of one will lead to the creation of another problem in another form (Sensible citizens therefore didn't just cheer the decision but insisted that it be implemented through a coordinated plan that would have looked at all the sectors otherwise the exercise will be in limbo). Indeed there was such an Urban Transport Project financed by the World Bank, which on the notorious completion would have considerably alleviated the notorious traffic congestion and air pollution in the city. But it remains not only non-starter but is now in doldrums, a hard fact lately revealed in a review meeting by the DCC, the nodal agency entrusted with the job it has failed abysmally. Consequently, the World Bank representative's strongly-worded indictment ever to be passed by officials of an international organisation on the DCC has highlighted the latter's failure in no unmistakable terms. Its empty coffers induced the (Dhaka City) Corporation's seminal debacle as it could not come up with 0 per cent of the funds required for completing the important public works component of the project. It had no coordination with DMP or Rajuk even on a. special purpose like handling such a must-do project although its corrupt and inefficient officials concerned flamboyantly move around sporting a can-do posture all the while.

That the DCC has drawn a flak for its inherent lack of expertise in implementing a project of international standard is something that must also be taken very seriously by all concerned. Actually the project should be transferred to LGRD Ministry or R and H Department under the communications Ministry. Hopefully, the project will be completed under a double-quick basis under the new arrangements.

So, what was apprehended came true. Dhaka's air has been back, sooner rather than later, to its choking worst as authorities have made space for old two-stroke baby taxis and derelict trucks to return to the roads. The pollution-spewing vehicles are now again on the roads because the government somewhat backed down lately after their talks with transport associations centered around a strike they had called to protest. Even the high-risk old vintage transports are now allowed to ply and the police have eased back on enforcing the regulations.In fact the city transport system would be unable to cope by providing any immediate alternatives again we need an organised transport policy. The solution lies in a comprehensive policy framework rather than by recourse to adhoc measures. The public need both transport and safe and clean air-both. One without the other won't work. To add further, Dhaka's transport situation is a crisis without end. At the heart of the matter, its mostly about management. But the unworthy road conditions, toll collection and other issues of non-accountability also suggest that we really don't have transport or a poverty problem but a general problem of systemic failure. However still they can be resolved if the authorities are dead serious. While sticking to phase-out programme government should assist rehabilitation of the affected. Then again, the city of filth, Dhaka's overall plight is a problem and its own metaphor.

Meanwhile, the lead pollution being belched by the contraption continues to harm ail the citizens. And autorickshaw operators must also cooperate with the government rather than confront it on the question of ridding civic life of the lethal hazard.

There is a talk of the CNG-fication of the two-stroke engines. Why only this? Government should issue an order dating CNG conversion of all vehicles within a set time frame and begin with its own fleet and those belonging to Ministers and also MPs who import tax-free cars. Vehicles were converted into CNG in Delhi by a court order. Why doesn't it happen here happen here? India banned 8-year old vehicles and those condemned ones were being imported to Bangladesh. Government as understood has a plan to expand CNG use.

Steps are under way to convert all vehicles in Dhaka and Chittagong into CNG in next two years and set up at least 100 refueling stations. In a recent study under fuse of CNG and LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) for Cleaner Environment, it is said that if 50 per cent of vehicles of Dhaka and Chittagong cities are converted into CNG-run ones, the country can save about US$ 100 million every year on the import bill of transport fuel that amounted to $310 million in 1999-2000.

The resulting cleaner air will bring in health benefits equivalent to another $100 million every year. In this connection one can rightly criticise the government for its move to buy catalytic converters which would not be cost effective, it'd be an extravagance as these so-called converters would be of no use after six months or so, if the experience in the neighbouring countries be any guide. Some leading organisations suggest promoting use of lube oil in two-stroke auto rickshaws and one wonders whether it acted as an agent or a sales/marketing joint for some supplying company, its a wild idea.

The state of Dhaka's air has become so bad that it can no longer be described through ordinary language. Only metaphors can portray this murky monster that is slowly and steadily swallowing us. Not only are we willy-nilly swallowing some of the most polluted air in the world, we are also doing nothing effectively to eliminate the sources of our endless misery. The state of air pollution is not as much and environmental problem or hazard as it's a governance disaster. And there is something deeply tragic about the process of demand articulation by civil society leaders through various fora and discourses and denials by the powers that be.

The state of the pollution may indicate a deeper malaise and the situation as we see today is part of an overall decline. We may not be making the (right) connection because we have lived with decline for so long. Somewhere along the line, the entire process of managing society and governing the people in consonance with the general will of the governed was lost. It's the coterie that subverted public interest for personal gain which ended up getting the upperhand.

It will take extra-ordinary and perhaps somewhat unrealistic optimism to think that the trend will change for the better if fundamental structural changes are not actuated. Meanwhile let us cry against the pillage of the government, and at the same time our hope is the government will pay heed to these and quickly turnaround drawing on the wealth of various expert advices coming through newsprints and elsewhere on the burning issue of air pollution, which, is a sign of failed governance (to repeat again), and that exactly how it has to be dealt with and firmly, not quarter-heartedly.


Source: The Daily Independent, Dhaka, March 1, 2002


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