Defending Environment

People’s Report on Bangladesh Environment

Farooque Chowdhury

Environment as all around can't escape time. So, it sounds illogical to say nothing changed over the last decade in Bangladesh environment.

Changes, positive and negative, are there in Bangladesh environment in all its existences, forms, manifestations and signatures. It bears all seals, economic, political, social, cultural, organizational, activities, contradictions, dominating interests, of the time that may appear moving towards unknown destination. But, the destination turns clear if the historical process is identified.

A temporal comparison, revisiting the People's Report on Bangladesh Environment 2001 (PBE), is made here to identify the changes in the realm of environment. Considering space available the comparison is very brief.

The PBE (in two volumes) was an initiative taken more than 12 years ago. The PBE's main report (vol. I) attempted to build up a macro picture of the Bangladesh environment by forging micro snaps gathered from around the country, from the northern tip to the southern corner, from the eastern region to the western part, from sandy river shoals to fishing hamlets near the Sundarbans, the mangrove forest along a part of the northern coastline of the Bay of Bengal.

In eight chapters on land, forestry, fisheries, water, industry, energy, urbanization and climate, the PBE (published under Sustainable Environment Management Program supported by UNDP) with about 300 pages followed participatory environment assessment approach. Perceptions, observations, experiences of hundreds of farmers, fishers, forest-centered professionals, teachers, journalists, experts, and persons involved with agriculture, fisheries, water, forestry and extension work were gathered during the period 2000 for preparing the report. Using tools and techniques of participatory research the gathered information, data, etc. were of the year 2000 and of a few years earlier, depending on area of assessment. A few quantitative methods were applied for conducting a number of quantitative surveys. The introductory chapter provides the broader geographical and cultural setting of the Bangladesh environment while two other chapters discuss economics related to environment and a number of initiatives for environmental regeneration. The volume II of the PBE with about 200 pages is full of data related to aspects of the Bangladesh environment.

The PBE discussed agro-chemicals. It also highlighted the poor health of the soil.

None but the agrochemical producers and its lobby now disagree with the harmful effects of agrochemicals. Visit to randomly selected rural market places will provide today's reality related to use of agrochemicals. Even, new products have joined their older friends. A look at publicity material of the agrochemicals in rural market places will overwhelm any mind. Even, it will be unsurprising if one finds the number of shops selling agrochemicals in a few market places outscore the number of drug stores selling pharmaceutical products for human. And, it will also be unsurprising if a single book store is not found in those market places. It's the power of market that mesmerizes its devotees! Annual turn over of agrochemicals business, manufacturing, trading, transportation, advertisement, etc., pronounces the power of agrochemical market. However, in the long run, people will suffer from chemical effects.

There is initiative by government agriculture authority to disseminate information among farmers on use of non-chemicals to fertilize soil and to counter pest, etc. Farmers in areas are also practicing ecological methods to fight out insects, pests, etc., and to restore health of soil. In some areas, farmers themselves have adopted on the basis of their experience. But, as a trend, both are small and weak. The chemical-pressure is strong. The reason, in a single word, is economic.

"The waning Sundarbans" and "How green was my forest" are two headlines from the PBE's chapter on forestry that tell the depictions made there.

Today, people living near the forests know the reality. The Bangladesh press regularly reflects the reality. A few days' stay around the Sundarbans, Madhupur, hill tracts region in the south-east, Sylhet, Habiganj, Maulavi Bazaar, etc. areas, boat journey through the rivers in Patuakhali and Bagerhat will provide a part of the reality.

It's the same loot based on power, which was told in the PBE more than 12 years ago. It's a reality of destruction and corruption.

Tales of fishers from Matlab, Barguna, Madaripur, Kishoreganj, Amtali, Gofargaon, Shariatpur, Mohonganj, Haimchar, Chandpur, Kalapara, Patharghata and of other areas are in the PBE's sections with headings "Where have all the fishes gone?", "The shy Hilsa". The fishers participating in the assessment did not found many varieties of fish in the rivers and other water bodies while they assessed the reality of fishing. They found silt, pollution, encroachment, obstruction for private interest, over-fishing, etc.

"Dying rivers", "The dying rivers of south-western Bangladesh", "Rivers robbed of navigability", "The river grabbers", "Buriganga encroached" in the PBE are tales of pain and frustration that all Bangladesh people feel.

"Due to extensive encroachment... the second channel of the Buriganga [the river flowing by Dhaka] was almost dead.... [N]ow it barely exists as both public and private agencies have grabbed the channel of the Buriganga." (New Age, May 27, 2014) Many other rivers in other parts of the country are dead or near-dead with similar stories. A random or purposive newspaper survey also provides same type of information.

The PBE's sections with headlines "Polluting industries", "The horrific factories of Khulna" and "Villages seized by industrial pollution" depict the reality of industrial pollution.

Living condition in urban areas found its place in "The degenerating habitat", "Dwindling dwelling places" and "Unmanageable solid waste" sections of the PBE.

Bangladesh urban dwellers know best the condition they pass everyday. In cases of the poor and other low-income families, the condition is unbearable. They just pass on as they find no alternative.

It, the environment in dwelling places, shows the people's resilience; and it carries anger, deep and powerful. Bosses of the society are aware of the first one, the resilience, and feel confident to ignore the other one, the deep, powerful anger. The bosses take everything as for granted, a short-sight indeed. No wonder, capital that directs bosses sometimes turn short-sighted, sometimes turn blind, and all the time is devoid of conscience and consideration to others.

The Bangladesh urban life is divided into two: Of the rich, and of the rest that includes the poor, the low-income and mid-income people, the weaker, unorganized segments of the society. The poor are not welcome in some parts of some cities. Notice warning intruders, sentinel eyes, high security wall, strong gates, silence, clean surroundings, greenery in the rich-part don't miss inquisitive eyes. Dust, dirty water stagnated on road and in drain, mud, heaped garbage, no- or less- or bad smelled-"potable" water, foul odor and cacophony gleefully riding the air around, uncovered food being sold, ultra-tightly knitted dwelling and industrial units are every moments' and all years' fact of life in the poor part. A virtual apartheid! A virtual pushing down of the major part of the population to the stage of inhuman condition!

A tour through rivers around Dhaka, Narayanganj, Khulna, Chittagong makes the state of industrial pollution stark: effluents being discharged. Even, middle and smaller urban centers like Narshingdi, Savar, Gazipur, Kaliakoir, Natore are not different. It's not hard to experience air polluted with smoke being billowed by chimneys in some other parts of the country. Ship breaking yards are to say the same story.

And, around and in these areas live the poor, the weakest part of the society. So, it's the poor that suffer. And, who in the broader society is concerned with the suffering of the poor? Lip services are abundant there. Charity is also there. But, questioning the reality is not there. No questioning is the safest part of modus operandi of the status quo. The formula is: "Maintain apartheid, and be liberal with charity, and organize protests, but that should be sporadic, not sustained, not systematic".

In this reality of marketing confusing concepts, an exception has stood bold: the court of law, the judiciary, the judges. In terms of initiative, number, speed and force, the court of law is standing for the Bangladesh environment. The position of court has increasingly turned bold and unhesitating. Even, there are instances, in which the court of law has taken initiative on its own; none approached the court. A study of environment related directives, verdicts, actions, etc. of/by the court of law over the decades will provide the instance.

Thus a critical reality emerges: The court of law is extending its hands of help to humanity while dominating economic interests have created virtual apartheid, are hell-bent to destroy the environment although the dominating interests depend on existing structure of rule and on environment. It's a contradiction within. And, the contradiction is a space for people. This reality is becoming starker over the last decades, especially over the last few years.

Government organizations are taking initiatives that start from planting hundreds of thousands of saplings around the country.

Journalists are now more active and bold for environment. A survey of reports by Bangladesh journalists will support the claim.

The Bangladesh people, especially younger part of the society are active for defending environment. In the rural part of Bangladesh, people, especially citizens' organizations and students are encouragingly standing for the environment. The Bangladesh press regularly carries the information. Smaller and medium sized NGOs, and local and regional level NGOs are organizing incidents and events for the environment. A vibrant market of saplings is wide in Bangladesh. Visits to rural market places provide the picture. Decades ago, the people's initiative was almost absent.

Reaction of people to food laced/injected with harmful chemicals is a form of rejection to the system that markets these foods. But the rejection is not organized, mobilized. An organized rejection, an area of fighting greedy capital, can create positive impact in the areas of the environment, people's health and in national economy, which is not beyond environment.

A review of political/election manifestoes of almost all political parties, irrespective of color, shows: The parties are concerned, as their manifestoes show, with the issue of the environment. At the same time, that claimed assertion provides a clue to find out contradictions within the parties and between the parties and the environment with people in the heart of environment.

None of the political parties, as their manifestoes say, stand for environment-plunderers. This manifesto-claim raises a few questions: How the environment falls prey to the plunderers? How the plunder machine keeps on running unabated for years? Shall anyone believe that the machine has the power to run on without fuel: political connection, political patronization? Should one believe that plunder machine is more powerful than state machine? How state machine shall protect private property if plunder machine makes the state machine appear helpless? Future shall raise these questions boldly. And, answers to the questions will expose a nexus, a cue identify the contradictions.

The type of incidents puts burden on the parties related to status quo. But they reject historical lesson.

The political parties claiming to be friends of the people are amazingly absent minded in carrying out theoretical struggle in the area of environment, sustained publicity, and in mobilizing the people.

There are scores of areas and forms to organize, mobilize and wage fight on the question of the environment. It's one of the areas to challenge status quo-hegemony and initiate creating people's hegemony.

But, more amazingly, that area is still left vacant by the political forces claiming to be standing for the people although the area—the environment—is political and it suffers from contradictions between classes.

Despite linings of political questions in the People's Report on Bangladesh Environment 2001 it doesn't explicitly discuss the political aspect of the environment. But, in today's Bangladesh, raising the political aspect of the environment is urgent and immediate as dominating interests are devouring the environment, as degradation of the environment is hurting the people, as one of the arms of the dominating interests engaged with the destruction of the environment is political.
[The article was written on the occasion of World Environment Day, June 5]

Vol. 46, No. 51, Jun 29 - Jul 5, 2014