Fifteen years ago, when Zafar Ali – a farm labourer from Sirajganj district – first arrived in Dhaka to earn bread by pulling a rickshaw, he felt that the air of the capital city was difficult to breathe. Somehow, he adapted to the environment.
Occasionally, he visited his village in Enayetpur's Rupshi. And every time he returned, the Dhaka air seemed more suffocating than before.
Zafar now knows that the term for his predicament is "air pollution". To him, the black smokes emitted from unfit motor vehicles and brick kilns, and the foggy dust blowing over busy streets are what contribute to polluting the air.
When informed that the government had spent a lot of money to address the issue, including constructing several foot-over bridges under a project designed to curb air pollution and the framing of anti-pollution rules, Zafar seemed a little confused.
The rickshaw-puller could not relate the existence of foot-over bridges with air pollution control mechanisms.
"I assume all the money has been stolen. I saw traffic police take bribes from drivers of unfit buses. Where is the law?" Zafar questioned.
The question hung in the air, joining all the pollutants.
Dhaka's air is gravely polluted. Given the rapid urbanisation as well as growing commercial activities, the air of the other major cities too is being polluted.
Time and again, citizens have blamed the problem on the sheer negligence of authorities concerned who have failed to consider air pollution a serious issue.
Sharif Jamil, general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, said the government has failed to realise that air pollution was going to create a humanitarian crisis soon.
He pointed out the construction of ongoing mega projects to be equally culpable for the pollution. "The construction firms should maintain compliance like they do in developed countries. A clean air act has also been drafted. But it sees no headway. Why? Implementation of the laws is also crucial," he said.
Bangladesh's air has again been ranked as the world's most polluted, a Swiss company IQAir said on Tuesday.
Dhaka has been ranked the second most polluted capital city in the world with a PM2.5 level of 78.1 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m³), higher than the WHO recommended annual average concentration of 5 μg/m³.
PM2.5 refers to airborne particulate matters less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter.
The fine particles cannot be seen by the naked eye, but the long-term consequences of inhaling those on a daily basis can be felt in the lungs or observed in the number of children growing up with breathing problems.
Initiatives that yield nothing
Numerous initiatives have been taken over the years to deal with the issue of air pollution. Those, however, have not borne fruit.
According to news reports, around 300 government officers travelled abroad between 2010 and 2019 to learn how to identify air pollution and its impacts.
The trips were funded by a World Bank project titled Clean Air and Sustainable Energy (CASE).
The Department of Environment (DoE) – the mandated agency to check pollution – widened its headquarters' premise with the money, a CASE project document showed. A few fixed chimney brick kilns were converted into modern zigzag ones.
The project expired two years ago, but there was no visible improvement.
Air quality in Dhaka started to visibly deteriorate in the mid-1990s. Particulate matters were identified as the main air pollutant of concern.
To address this, the government launched the Air Quality Management Project (AQMP) in 2000. The project's cost was approximately $77.54 million, of which $70.24m was funded by the World Bank.
The AQMP, focusing on Dhaka air, found the primary sources of air pollution: vehicles, small industries, brick kilns, other biomass incinerators and re-suspended road dust.
The AQMP remained operational between September 2000 and December 2007.
Later, the second phase of the AQMP was renamed CASE, launched in 2010. Within nine years of the project tenure, the World Bank funded $87.2m, almost the entire project cost.
Broadly, the CASE project aimed to curb pollution by the brick kilns and diesel-run vehicles.
According to a CASE project review by the DoE, there were 4,959 brick kilns in Bangladesh in 2013. The number rose to about 8,000 in 2018. Of those, 7,200 were still fixed chimney kilns. About vehicle emission, the AQMP review report said it had identified the problem, something which had already been done earlier.
Visibly, the project succeeded in installing 26 air quality monitoring machines across the country, including in Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj, Chattogram, Barishal and Sylhet. But how the machines would be operated after the expiry of the project has not been clarified yet.
The Parliamentary Committee for the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, slammed the project implementation as it had missed the core objectives.
On 21 January 2019, the year CASE project expired, lawyer Manzill Murshid on behalf of the Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB) filed a writ petition with the High Court, seeking court directions for the authorities concerned to implement anti-air pollution rules.
Between 28 January and 26 November, the court issued several deadline-oriented directives to the authorities concerned to stop some specific sources of air pollution.
On 13 January next year, the court issued a nine-point directive: to carry waste and construction materials in a covered vehicle, keep construction materials at under-construction sites covered, sprinkle water on roads by city corporations and stop plying of unfit vehicles, were some of the directives.
The court directives had been ignored evidently. The only time Dhaka's air quality had shown improvement was during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, when the whole country had come to a halt.
On 30 January this year, the HRPB moved to the High Court to learn updates. The court summoned the director general of the DoE, and the deputy commissioners of Dhaka, Manikganj, Munshiganj, Narayanganj and Gazipur.
Hearing on the petition is still undergoing.
When contacted, DoE Director General Dr Abdul Hamid declined to make comments on air pollution.
Professor Dr Abdus Salam, a chemistry professor at the Dhaka University, and member of a multinational research group studying air quality, said the anti-air pollution project components, except conversion of the old-fashioned brick kilns, did not directly address air pollution. That's why the situation remained unchanged or the crisis intensified.
"Again, brick kilns are not the single source of air pollution. There are many others and the government should address those with effective measures in a coordinated way. Unfortunately, we have not seen such initiatives yet," Professor Salam said.