Environment Needs Total Dedication 

Piecemeal actions are no substitutes for the badly needed and truly committed comprehensive policies to save the environment, says Enayet Rasul

THE government has slapped a ban on the use of ploythene bags in the country effective from 1 January, 2002. This piece of news may have gladdened many hearts because such a ban has been a long standing demand of environmentalists and all other conscious groups in the country. But observers with long memory will not forget the episode in the early nineties when a BNP government under Begum Khaleda Zia made a similar declaration about banning polythene bags. But that declaration was never put into real effect and finally it was learnt that the government withdrew it in the face of strong lobbying launched by the polybag producers. 

The difference this time is that the government has set the date of 1 January for banning production and use of polybags. But as the saying goes 'the taste of the pudding is in the eating.' So, people will have to really see the ban coming into effect with the actual disappearance of the bags from all salespoints, to believe it. Only when they find their purchased goods no longer wrapped by polybags that people would be convinced about the effectiveness of the decision. 

But where are the signs of enforcement of the decision? A shopkeeper on being asked will tell you that he has heard about the proscriptive measure but has stocks of polythene bags to last him beyond 1 January and he has no intention not to use them since he bought them with money. Will he use them beyond 1 January ? The answer is likely to be in the affirmative. This is likely because nobody has told the users of polybags that they would face penalties for using polybags after the 1 January deadline. The word was not spread through the mass media that enforces of the decision would be in the fields past 1 January to ascertain whether polybag users are respecting the ban decision and on detection of violators could take penal action against them. Thus, without these warnings or fear circulated in the mass consciousness, how the authorities can expect that people will be so understanding and act on their own by not going for any use of polybags from the fine morning of 1 January? 

Such a development is not practical. The likely scenario after 1 January under the circumstances is continuing use of polybags. People could still be using them because they are so habituated to it and find such bags easy and convenient. A bad habit is not automatically rejected. It calls for hard persuasion and coercion for a change. Without such arm-twisting, we could continue to see the use of polybags. People on being asked could reply that they are only using up old stocks. The bags could be produced underground and sold as usual through the distribution channels. The authorities could say that the bags are being clandestinely produced and it is hard to find them out or to stop their uses among millions of users. Or it could even be said that the bags are being smuggled into the country and their use is unstoppable because of people's love for such bags. It might not be recognised that for the ban to work out, what would be required most is hard enforcement measures and penalties that users would find not worth paying. Only then, the ban would stand a chance of succeeding. 

While discussing the polythene bag issue, one is also led to express anxiety about the overall dangerously threatened environmental conditions of Bangladesh. Polythene bags are but a very tiny part of the total environmental degradation of this country. The environmental decline of Bangladesh is so extensive and diverse that the same calls for immediate formulation of multi-faceted policies and their through implementation to check and reverse the same. Piecemeal actions are no substitute for the wider environmental peril looming over Bangladesh. 

It would be no overstatement to say that among all the ministries of the government, the performance of the environment ministry has been the least appreciable since it was set up in the late eighties in response to the growing environmental hazards. The environment of Bangladesh has gone on declining seriously during the last decade and a half. But the ministry that was exclusively created to address this worsening environmental situation seemed to do nothing as the environment steadily deteriorated and environmental concerns multiplied and intensified. 

Dhaka city that was one of the world's most air polluted cities ten years ago is now the number one, the worst air polluted city in the world. Sections of rivers flowing around the big concentrations of urban population of Bangladesh have turned so polluted from unregulated discharge of effluents that these are like dark liquids devoid of oxygen and aquatic life. Biodiversity in large parts of Bangladesh have been threatened by a number of man-made factors. One of them is the country's overpopulation and its consequent impact on the environment. But compared to the devastating population bomb that is building up for this small country, the response to it appears pathetically very little. Widespread presence of arsenic in underground water, the loss of soil fertility from mono-cropping without crop rotation, toxicity of the soil and the food chain from indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, etc., are other formidable environmental problems. Deforestation has whittled down the country's forests and vegetation cover too dangerously ; the country's basic environmental balance has been threatened as a result. The coastal areas of the country are poorly supervised. Foreign vessels dump their waste matters too freely in the coastal areas and perhaps such vessels had dumped on occasions cargoes of very hazardous wastes in Bangladesh's territorial waters finding the same an unchallenged zone while indulging in such activities. 

There are many sides to the environmental crisis that is gradually showing up in Bangladesh. Many are in the making from unregulated human activities within the country. But a very serious threat to the environment of the country has external origins. Bangladesh as a low lying country stands to be among the few countries to be worst hit by greenhouse gases and the earth warming phenomenon. Although Bangladesh should have long ago started an all out clamour to sensitize the international community to its plight and sought adequate international compensation and assistance to meet the nearing catastrophe, the leaders of this country continue to remain very surprisingly mum and unconcerned about it. 

A new government has come to power in Bangladesh. People expect the new government to take a new and hard look at the major problems confronting the country. If this is done, then environment surely would be recognised as an area requiring highest priority attention. The government needs to urgently get down to preparing a comprehensive environmental policy including the ways and means to enforce it. Nothing short can save the country from the environmental disaster that seems about to overwhelm it. 

The environmental decline has already much eroded the quality of life in Bangladesh. If it goes on like this, without a check and abatement, then Bangladesh could turn into a poisonous hell hole with worse unclean air, water, soil and surroundings where decent human existence and happiness would not be possible. Already such existence and happiness has disappeared considerably from the life and living in Bangladesh due to the stressful environment. The environment related woes are likely to be worse and worse and, finally the worst, without an environment restoration policy in place and its proper implementation. Therefore, the present government can make a very big contribution to an area of very pressing need by introducing a proper environmental policy and enforcing it successfully. 

What things the environmental policy must aim are obvious : it should set up a system for all polluters to be warned and identified and made to suffer penalties for their unwillingness or inability to adhere to the policy. For instance, it should make a rule that all industries producing hazardous wastes must have a waste treatment plant for treating such waste before discharging them on soil, air or water bodies. Violators of the rule should have the choice of either conforming strictly to the rule or closing down operation. Air pollution in the cities can be reduced by requiring automotive vehicles to compulsorily use catalytic converters and by fining or not allowing the movement of vehicles that do not keep clean engines or exhaust systems. Air pollution can be also reduced by compulsorily producing and distributing lead and sulphur free fuel for vehicles. Arsenic in underground water can be tackled by spreading the know-how of inexpensive ways of filtering arsenic from the water. Similar dissemination of information about the benefits of crop rotation, regulated use of chemical fertilisers and natural pest control, can work wonders in preserving the fertility of the soil or preventing soil from becoming toxic. Even the passing of laws and their enforcement can be considered to this end. The environmental policy should lead to environmental laws to protect and expand the country's forests and vegetation, to protect and increase the number of its reserved forests, to protect its bio-diversity, to promote environment friendly urban areas, etc. Externally, under the environment policy, Bangladesh must pursue a more strident and vocal role internationally to draw attention to the plight of Bangladesh from the earth warming. 

But the policy will remain ineffectual as long as it remains on paper and is not enforced. For the environmental policy to bear fruit, it must go the whole hog with the creation of environmental courts, the environmental police and their efficient functioning. 

Source: The Financial Express, 26 December, 2001