In blatant defiance of the government's 1999 declaration that the 10km area surrounding the Sundarbans is an Ecologically Critical Area, the Department of Environment has continued to issue clearance certificates for new industries to be set up there.
A total of 190 industries were issued site clearance and environmental clearance certificates between 1991 and 2016. Of them, 187 obtained clearance after 1999, according to a list submitted by the Department of Environment to the High Court in April 2018.
The 1999 gazette, in accordance with Section 5(a) and Section 5(d) of the 1995 Environment Conservation Act, said it is prohibited to cut trees and forests, to hunt and kill wild animals, to change or destroy the natural settings of the land and water, and to set up industries that lead to land, water, air and sound pollution in the Ecologically Critical Area.
When contacted, Dr AKM Rafique Ahmed, director-general of the Department of Environment, declined to comment on why the clearance certificates had been issued despite the gazette notification.
Experts have said the gazette gives the Department of Environment the authority to initiate legal proceedings against the industries in the Ecologically Critical Area without having to wait for a court order.
Against the background of the government's inaction in this regard, Sheikh Faridul Islam, president of the environmental organisation Save the Sundarbans, filed a writ petition with the High Court in April 2017.
The petition sought the court's order to relocate the industries set up in the Ecologically Critical Area. The court is yet to dispose of the petition.
In response to the petition, the court in August 2017 clamped a ban on the approval of new industries in the Ecologically Critical Area. However, it did not issue any prohibition on conducting drives against the existing industries.
Dr AKM Rafique told The Business Standard it was not possible to take any official step against the industries as the matter was still sub judice.
Sheikh Faridul Islam's counsel, Barrister Sheikh Md Jakir Hossain, said his client was compelled to take the matter to court because of the Department of Environment's failure to carry out its duties properly.
"The Department of Environment can still conduct drives and close the industries but it is inactive, as it was before," he said.
Types of industries in the Sundarbans ECA
According to the Department of Environment's list, there are 190 industries in the Ecologically Critical Area near the Sundarbans in the districts of Khulna, Bagerhat and Satkhira.
Of them, 78 are in Bagerhat, 92 in Khulna and 20 in Satkhira.
Thirty-six of the 190 industries have been shut down by the Department of Environment, while 24 of them are in the red category, meaning that they are causing severe environmental damage to the Ecologically Critical Area.
These 24 industries include cement, gas cylinder, oil refinery, brick kiln, betel nut processing, shipbuilding, cigarette, artificial hair, car seat heater, brush, saline water refinery, restaurant, rice mill, ice factory, wielding, sawmill, fishery, crab farming and hatchery.
Of the 24 industries, 14 have environmental clearance certificates, but the licences of two of these industries have expired. Renewal of the clearance certificates of three industries has been suspended.
The remaining nine industries have site clearance certificates but of those, two have expired.
The Department of Environment in its report submitted to the court said of the 190 industries, 181 have environmental clearance and the remaining nine have site clearance.
The court subsequently ordered the Department of Environment to submit the report in the form of an affidavit.
The court was supposed to give an order on the next steps in this regard on May 9 last year after seeing the Department of Environment affidavit, but that is still pending.
Final hearing on writ pending
Media reports on the Department of Environment issuing site clearances for 150 industries of different sizes in the Ecologically Critical Area were included in Faridul's petition.
In the petition, Barrister Jakir also brought to the court's notice media reports on the secretary of the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources approving the establishment of 300 filling stations in the Sundarbans area.
Jakir told The Business Standard that the 190 industries have continued their operations as the writ has not yet been disposed of.
"The court could not hold the final hearing on the writ petition yet because of the non-cooperation of the state. The writ has been on the court's cause list for long but the state keeps asking for more time," Jakir said.
He said the industries set up in the Ecologically Critical Area are harmful for the Sundarbans and the environment as a whole.
Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said the court would hold the final hearing on the writ soon.
Motaher Hossain Sazu, deputy attorney general at the time the writ was filed, told The Business Standard that expert opinions are needed during the hearing to understand how harmful these industries are to the environment.
For his part, Faridul told The Business Standard that a power station of Energypac was set up in the Mongla port area in defiance of the 2017 High Court ban on new industries.
"The power station is within eight kilometres in the surrounding areas of the Sundarbans. It poses a serious threat to the mangrove forest," he said.
However, Dr Rafique said no clearance had been issued for setting up industries in the Ecologically Critical Area in compliance with the 2017 High Court ban.
"We are bound to follow the order the court issues after the final hearing of the writ," he added.
The environment expert Professor Ainun Nishat told The Business Standard the extent of the damage an industry does to the Sundarbans is way more critically important than how far it is situated from the forest.
"An industry located even 30 kilometres from the Sundarbans can inflict significant damage on the forest," he said.