Tackling environmental problems
Mahbub Husain Khan 

The new government has, since its coming into power, attempted the framing of regulations to solve environmental problems as regards the polythene bags, and control of noxious emission from vehicles. The ban on production, distribution and marketing of polythene shopping bags came into effect throughout the country from March 1. The minister in charge of Environment and Forests has assured the public that the relevant law banning the production and use of polythene shopping bags would be enacted in the current session of the parliament, the present order being an executive regulation. At the same time, the minister announced on the 28th March the government decision to enforce the fitting of catalytic converters for petrol-driven vehicles, and particulate filters for diesel-driven vehicles from March 1. The government, however, has to consider the lead time required to fit all vehicles with such emission control equipment and to phase out the two-stroke autorickshaws, and to enact required legislation to impose heavy fines and imprisonment for violators of the emission control requirement.

These announcements for the regulation of the factors causing environmental pollution in regard to air and waste-disposal are welcome for the urban as well as the rural population. In this connection we are aware that societies have three closely related economic requirements, each of which is of independent force. There is the need to supply the requisite consumer goods and services. There is the need to ensure that this production and its use and consumption do not have an adverse effect on the current well-being of the public at large. And there is the need to ensure that they do not adversely affect the lives and well-being of generations yet to come.

The last two of these three requirements are in frequent conflict with the first, a conflict that is strongly manifest in everyday economics and politics. The environmental problems emerge from the impact of this production and consumption on the contemporary health, comfort and well-being of the larger community. And they come from their future effects, including the exhaustion of the natural resources that are now so abundantly available and consumed.

The manifestations of contemporary damage in our country are now distressingly familiar – air and water pollution, the large and growing problem of waste disposal, the immediate danger to health from the products and services dispensed and the visual and audio pollution from the intrusion of production and sales activity, particularly retail sales activity, on the urban and rural landscape. Not infrequently, bad health and visual pollution go together. The long-term as distinct from the contemporary effects are many : the delayed damage of air pollution, the most discussed examples being global warming and the greater incidence of lung cancer and emphysema; other disastrous climatic changes, as from forest depletion, the mismanagement of the wetlands, depletion of natural and mineral resources, increase of minerals which cause harm such as arsenic, and in our country, as the population grows and urbanisation continues unrestrained, the exhaustion of living space.

The first requirement in removing the contemporary and long term deleterious effects of economic activity on the environment is strong and enlightened citizens are concerned about the problems. Environmental protection produces no immediate economic return; for it to gain support and achieve its goals, there must be alert and persistent public and political expression and action. Here, the present situation is not entirely discouraging; environmental issues currently inspire a widespread and often, effective public interest through the work of various social organisations, NGO’s and the media. And this is vitally important. The economic and political situation must also be clearly understood and action formulated accordingly.

As far as the immediate economic effects of banning of polyhene bags are concerned this involves the fate of the bag factories, their sponsors and the workers. At the same time retail trade in the shops and bazaars have been hampered by the lesser availability and higher costs of paper and jute substitutes. It was incumbent upon the government, and the people involved to have a dialogue much before this action was taken to redirect the manufacturers to produce paper bags and jute bags economically and swiftly to orient consumer preference and attain product economy in the retail market. This is now taking place and we hope there will be, in a short while, adequate jute and paper bags in the market for general use.

Automobiles around which, to a remarkable extent, the modern consumer economy revolves, contributes to air pollution and, in the occupation and use of street space, to urban environmental degradation. There have now been announcements about the use of noxious emission control equipment, and the phasing out of autorickshaws having two-stroke engines. These involve substantial expense, in the fitting of the emission control equipment, and in rehabilitating the autorickshaw drivers and the import of more buses with emission control.

The autorickshaw has so far been the mainstay of rapid middle-class transit, and their void must have to be filled up by modern buses and maybe circular train systems in Dhaka and Chittagong. So far the steps taken in this regard have been inadequate and slow. As such, despite public utterances by ministers and responsible government officials, we have not seen any effective steps in curtailing autorickshaws, junk buses and trucks. Improved traffic management is yet to be seen.

Other aspects of environmental concern that need to be immediately looked into include halting depletion of forests and ecosystems, encroachment on rivers and depletion of river beds, water pollution including arsenic pollution, human and industrial waste disposal. In all these matters of environmental concern, both those which are contemporary and those affecting future generations, are inherently in conflict with the motivating force of the market economy, which is immediate, foreseeable return to the producing and merchandising firm.

This in turn, commands the energy and intelligence that empower the economic system both physically and mentally. Any intrusion on this system and its motivation is seen as socially and economically damaging and especially by those who experience it. We have seen the violent opposition by the autorickshaw drivers and owners to the government plans to ban them from the roads. A sacrifice of freedom of decision and profit in order to protect the larger community or its unborn children is held to be an abridgment of the very freedom that produces economic success.

The conflict is not lessened by the fact that government – the state – is the principal instrument for protecting both the present and the longer-run environmental interests. By an attack on the government as an ill-intentioned intervening force, environmental legislation and needs can be successfully thwarted. This may well be the case in the imminent legislation about polybags and motor-vehicles emission.

Under the present circumstances in our society, the environmental concern must have a strongly motivated constituency endowed by members with the necessary financial resources. Some of the NGOs do have this. There must also be a presumption in its favour in public discussion and political action. Public balance requires that there must be those who champion effectively and cogently the contemporary and long-run environmental case in our country. They should not be immune from intelligent criticism, but the weight of public opinion and political and government support must always be on their side.


Source: The Daily Independent, Dhaka, March 4, 2002


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