Greening Bangladesh: A green policy-management framework

Mizan R. Khan

Red-phobia of the Cold War era has given way to a Green-amour, apparently manifest in recent years in the greening of national and global agenda. Management of greening in a country like Bangladesh is a new area, with not much of past experience. There are two steps in policy formulation: choice of an overall goal and selection of instruments to achieve it. The steps are linked with political process, as selection of both the goal and the instruments have political ramifications. The task is compounded by inter-linkages in the conditions of land, air and water and the time lag between actions and effects. With its physical and socio-economic parameters, Bangladesh can be said to present a test case of sustainable development. Almost half of US population living in a territory 65 times smaller tends to surpass the carrying capacity both of source and sink functions of Nature. Thus the importance of a sound policy-management framework cannot be overemphasized. Though environmental management has become a priority issue in Bangladesh, looking into the reality with green lens, one finds serious lacunae in both the policy and institutional frameworks.


Environmental Policies/Laws: During the last decade, successive governments have adopted a plethora of policies and laws. These include the National Environment Policy (1992), National Environment Action Plan (1992), Forest Policy (1994), Forestry Master Plan (1993-2012), Environment Conservation Act (1995), Environment Conservation Rules (1997), draft National Conservation Strategy (1997), Environmental Court Act (2000) etc. Further, the National Environment Management Action Plan (NEMAP) has been prepared with participation of grassroots people. There are the follow-ups of NEMAP, such as the UNDP-supported Sustainable Environment Management Program (SEMP), CIDA-supported Bangladesh Environment Management Project (BEMP), World Bank supported Air Quality Management Project (AQMP) etc. But the state of environment today does not match this impressive array of policies, because the latter are not grounded on a sound process and workable instruments to realize the intended output/impact.

The policies/plans sound mission-like, with statements of pious objectives, rather than real directions. The policies prescribe Dos and Don'ts, rather than giving guidance to follow through. Let us take just one example: National Environment Policy (NEP). With 6 broad objectives, the NEP contains 3 to 7 policy statements for each of 15 sectors of the economy, totaling 69 sweeping statements. They are too broad in nature, with no prioritization and no indication either of the tools or the institutional capability needed for their implementation. There is a companion Environmental Action Plan, also presented in a sector-wise fashion. Again with no prioritization, EAP identifies the GoB implementing agencies for each of the 120 actions it proposes. It should have contained a logical and sequential action plan, based on considered choices/trade-offs, against which to allocate scarce resources human, financial and material.

Policy Instruments: Most of what the EAP proposed is regulatory in nature. The regulatory regime, with almost 200 laws, has bearing on the environment, both direct and indirect. The ECA is a detailed instrument of control and regulation. But standards and penalties often are not enforceable, efficient and effective in most cases. Reality in Bangladesh speaks for itself! Industrial world and even many developing countries now apply more of economic and social instruments for sustainable environment management (SEM). Market-based instruments like user fees/taxes, subsidies, deposit-refund scheme or emissions trading (ET) create competition for reduction of pollution/degradation level through internalizing the externalities, giving the right signals for the production/consumption processes. Based on the "polluter pays principle," many countries have successfully introduced green/carbon taxes. Our last budget contains some incentives/tax provisions encouraging/discouraging some imports. One should expect the coming budget will further this process.

Social Instruments are stakeholder consultation, community-based resource management and social incentives, censure etc. In Bangladesh policies/laws are drafted by ministries, vetted by Cabinet and stamped by Parliament. There is hardly any substantive debate yet on environment in Parliament. But policy-making is a political process entailing costs and politicians are in a better position to distribute costs/benefits among electorates. Public inputs beyond Parliament into policy-making are not yet a substantive phenomenon. Going to the yet-to-be-operational environmental courts for litigation should be taken as the last resort in a fractious polity like Bangladesh. Further, public disclosure through media of firms' environmental performance based on Rating has proved highly successful in Indonesia and elsewhere. This instrument rests on reputational incentives. Experience shows that pioneer green companies in the North already reap better dividends than the laggards. This tool can be applied to firms and GoB agencies to induce behavioral change. In like manner, the system of public recognition to tree growers can be extended to other sectors, such as agriculture, industries, education/advocacy, etc.

With no alternatives available, the poor are hard on the environment, so cogently argued in Our Common Future. Neither regulation nor taxes reach them, since 'folk-ways' always overpower 'law-ways.' Therefore, the key to controlling harmful activities in the traditional sector is to provide economic alternatives/incentives to communities to protect their immediate environment. Only then will the government-imposed penalties have any effect, because peer pressure from community leaders is more effective than from the government. The model of joint forest management (JFM) in West Bengal, initiated in the early 1970s by Dr. Ajit Banerjee, a forester, is a case in point. With a higher population density than in Bangladesh, JFM based on the principle of "care and share" has proved highly successful in regenerating natural forests. The care is based on group responsibility and social fencing. In contrast, with half the population density in the 1960s, forests there were severely degraded. JFM, highly acclaimed by the World Bank, has been widely replicated across India and beyond. Thus, it is not population pressure, but erosion of customary rights of the poor due to statization/privatization of natural resources that explains the problem.

In Bangladesh, community participation in resource protection has been accepted as a management tool at the policy level. But the statements lack clarity and direction, and are full of ambiguities. For example, the Forest Policy states the need of establishing a triangular partnership among the Forest Department (FD), the people and NGOs, but how the partnership will function is not explained. The result was an unhappy marriage between the FD and Proshika in Tangail in the mid-90s. The Project Proforma of Participatory Forestry (PF) in the Sal Forest Belt stipulates yearly-renewable lease with the participants, but in a long-gestation activity like forestry, one-year agreement with no renewal for years is ludicrous! In no way it ensures security of tree tenure, key to success in PF. It is yet to be appreciated that in poor areas protection by foresters warrants more of investment of their time/resources beyond forests, into the survival needs of fringe communities. In Thailand or the Philippines, communities are given forest leases for 25 years, with provision of renewal. It may be noted that Bangladesh have the third highest deforestation rate in the world, after Haiti and Jamaica. This fact alone should engender a policy of inclusion, not exclusion as in custodial management.

Discussion on community rights/management deserves a reference to the Hill Tracts. Intensification both of ethnic violence and environmental stress there is largely the result of conflicts between communal systems of resource management and government conception of property rights. Age-old values coupled with restricted private property rights of tribals set in the CHT Manual of 1900 and SATA of 1950 constrained their schooling in individualism and private property culture. Cultural relativity operates not only in defining what constitutes a resource, but also in defining what constitutes a regime of resource management. Any functioning bundle of property rights must possess a moral grounding in the communities' socio-cultural milieu. Therefore, any success in the Peace Accord is likely to depend, more than anything, on devising appropriate locale-specific models of resource management.

Conflicts in Sectoral Policies and Lack of Coordination: Conflicting policies are legion. Sectoral policies for agriculture, forest, fisheries and livestock have recommended introduction of alien species without considering its harmful impact on endemic species and ecosystems. For example, a number of alien fish species released in the past into closed water fisheries, found their way into open water habitats, posing serious threats to native species. The Fisheries Policy provides for export of turtles and other species, contradicting NEP. Emphasis of Agriculture Policy 1999 mostly on rice, wheat and maize is not facilitative to conserving the crop diversity. While NEP discourages use of chemical fertilizers, the Agri-policy focus on intensive method using agro-chemicals will have a negative impact on environment.

As environmental issues are crosscutting, there are overlapping jurisdictions and conflicting mandates among agencies. For example, about a dozen ministries and two dozen agencies are concerned with land management. Conservation of fisheries suffers because of ownership conflicts between the Ministry of Land, which owns over 10,000 jalmahals (wetlands), while the Ministry of Fisheries looks after the management of fisheries. Despite a directive from the Prime Minister, the Fisheries Ministry is yet to get hold of some wetlands for their conservation and sustainable management. The MoL used to lease them to private parties who exploited them unsustainably for profits. Thus, lack of consistency in sectoral policies and coordination seriously hampers environment management. This problem was looked into by the now-stalled SEMP Component of Policy and Legislation, implemented by the World Bank. As one of the tasks, it initiated establishing Environment Cells (EC) among 17 line ministries. Given proper support, the full-blooded ECs could avoid overlapping, policy conflicts, establish coordination and marry environment and development.

Institutional Structure, Manpower and Budget: Existing structure suffers from inactivity, manpower and budgetary constraints. The National Environment Council, headed by Prime Minister and the EC of NEC headed by Minister of Environment and Forest remain virtually non-functional. This deprives the green agenda of political blessings from the top. With a gigantic task of ensuring a clean environment, the manpower and budgetary provisions of MoEF and DoE (together about 50 officers/technical hands and Tk.3 cr/yr) are peanuts compared to sectoral ministries. The MoEF is manned mainly by admn cadres and the problem is accentuated by their frequent transfer, even after getting environmental training. The current level at 5% of public expenditure on all environment-related activities is quite low. This is even discriminatory, as majority of people depends on natural resources for their livelihood, income and employment.

There is a Planning Cell in MoEF, which is more short of required personnel. The Cell should be upgraded as Policy Planning Cell, with recruitment of experts from multidisciplinary background, who are able to coordinate and lead the ECs of line ministries. As one of the oldest agency, FD has the personnel strength, which in partnership with fringe community should be able to protect and enhance state forests. No addition of staff will do better policing unless the management strategy is changed. The long-needed Division of Social Forestry is not yet in place. A Department of Conservation or at least a Division within the FD should be created, since the issues are crosscutting and demand new policies/laws.

Environmental Diplomacy: Poverty is and should be articulated as the number one environmental problem. There are growing opportunities for vulnerable countries like Bangladesh if negotiations can be pursued forcefully. It is a technical and knowledge-intensive affair and delegations should be formed accordingly. But some problems persist, entailing the risk of presenting Bangladesh as a permanent novice in such negotiations. Delegation members are selected not with appropriate background, no continuity in participation and no institutional expertise/memory develops over time. The problem can partially be addressed by including an Expert in senior level delegations. Many developing countries do so. This will strengthen the fledgling bridge between executive power and expertise in Bangladesh. The little costs involved for an Expert will certainly be compensated many times over by earning lead role and project support from donors. At a time of sharply declining ODA, competition for scarce resources is intense. Compared to countries even in South Asia, Bangladesh lags far behind in tapping external resources for environmental protection.

Finally, the GOB can never do the job alone without a partnership with civil society and private sector. The latter as the engine of growth should also play avante guard in the greening process. Civil society is in a better position to develop environmental constituencies among the citizens and politicians. Most of the issues raised above were looked into by the UNDP-supported $26mn SEMP with its 26 components covering policy/legislation, community-based resource/ environmental management, advocacy/awareness and environmental education. Given proper implementation, SEMP - a partnership of GOB, civil society and private sector - shall make a real contribution to capacity building at national, local and community levels. One hopes this Grant-based Program be put back on track soon.

Source: The Daily Star, 2 June, 2001