More than one hundred illegal brick kilns that have been built around Narayanganj in recent years are posing a serious environmental threat to the people of the riverine district.
The brick kilns are running day-and-night, burning woods and coals without the Department of Environment's clearance.
Clouds of dark smoke billowing from the chimneys are casting a dark shadow over the everyday life of people. They are suffering from different respiratory and skin diseases including cold, cough, asthma, and dyspnea.
Brick kilns emit carbon, sulphur, and nitrogen, which in turn produce sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide, according to the Department of Environment. These chemicals are harmful to human health and the environment.
Roman Mia from Narayanganj's Fatullah said his family members suffer from cold, fever, cough round the year.
Another inhabitant of the same area Ali Hossain said, "If you stand in an open space for some time, you will find dusty materials entering your body through your nose and mouth. Most of the people in this area are suffering from respiratory diseases."
Imtiaz Ahmed, a civil surgeon of Narayanganj, said, "The black smoke of the brick kilns is dangerous to the human body. It causes different lung diseases. Children are most vulnerable to these diseases."
Compound-like black powders that spread through from the smoke of the brickfields is affecting land fertility. This compound is even damaging tin sheets used in the house roof.
The impact on trees and farming are also serious. The brick kilns mostly use soils from the upper surface of the croplands. As a result, the pH – a scale to specify how acidic or basic a water-based solution is – of the lands decreases along with the fertility.
"A few years back, there were a lot of coconuts in the trees. But now the coconuts are drying up. Other trees are suffering too," said Roman.
"Previously a lot of fruits and vegetables were cultivated in this area. But farming started to take a hit after the growth of brickfields," said Robiul Hossain of Narayanganj's Lalati.
More than one hundred brick kilns can be seen along the two sides of Dhaleswari and Buriganga rivers in Narayanganj's Boktaboli. There are several brick kilns in Pagla and Aliganj of Fatullah. Many residential areas in Rupganj, Bandar, Sonargaon, and Araihazar also have a bunch of brick kilns.
Salma Begum of Lalati said, "The owners of the brick kilns are very influential people. No one has the courage to talk against them. The administration is also reluctant to take any action despite repeated complaints."
They are trying to comply with the environmental rules, the brick kilns owners said while maintaining that will take time.
Shaokot Ali, president of Fotullah Boktaboli Brick Kiln Owners' Association said, "Most of the kilns built around Dhaleswari have been transformed to zigzag type as per the law. Those who are yet to do that are facing tremendous pressure from the administration."
Six types of brick kilns are usually seen in Bangladesh – Bull's Trench Kiln, fixed chimney kiln, zigzag kiln, vertical shaft brick kiln, Hybrid Hoffman Kiln, and tunnel kiln. According to experts, the zigzag is a relatively modern technology which is energy efficient and more environmentally friendly.
Shaokat Ali said the Department of Environment and the district administration have recently conducted drives against the illegal brick kilns and destroyed several of them.
Maintaining all the government requirements, he said, at least Tk50-60 lakh is needed to build a brick kiln. But no bank is interested to provide loans for this sector.
Many owners have shut down their business as they could not upgrade their kilns, Shaokat explained.
Afsar Hossain, owner of a brickfield in Fatullah said, "We also want to run brick kilns following the environmental standards. But we need time for that. The administration is putting pressure on us suddenly. We have no other option but to shut our kilns."
"If the government gives us a chance this year, we will follow the laws from next year," he added.
According to the Department of Environment's Narayanganj office, there are 334 brick kilns in the district. Among them, 268 have been built maintaining government rules. Other 68 are yet to be transformed into zigzag types. Recently Department of Environment conducted drives in 53 brick kilns and made a fine more than Tk1 crore.
Sayed Anwar, deputy director of the Department of Environment's Narayanganj office said, "We are conducting drives, following the high court order."
"We have shut down 25 kilns and will conduct drive in the other illegal kilns gradually."
Jasim Uddin, deputy commissioner of Narayanganj said, "We have singled out the illegal brick kilns responsible for environmental hazard. The district authority and Department of Environment will shut them down soon in a collective drive."