In Bangladesh, it is safe to say that industrialisation, by and large, is not paying much heed to the environment. The Department of Environment has so far found little success in identifying polluting industries resulting in the failure to impose and collect green tax.
The Business Standard recently talked to the chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) and Supreme Court lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan to learn more about the implications of unchecked industrialisation and how polluting industries can be identified and regulated.
We have been observing that the Department of Environment is not taking a strong stance against polluters, particularly from the industrial sectors. What is your observation on this?
The model of development that Bangladesh is pursuing is very destructive, as it prioritises infrastructural development over everything else.
When China, as well as the European and American countries started to develop, they were unaware of the environmental implications of development. But now we live in a world where development should only be acceptable when it is sustainable and protective of the environment.
As we are following a destructive model of development, the Department of Environment (DoE) has not been given all the freedom that it needs to actually check hazardous industrial activities.
In one Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) meeting, it was discussed that if the DoE does not give clearance within the stipulated time, then it should be assumed the clearance has been given and the project implementation can start.
If that sort of message is conveyed to the business community, entrepreneurs will take it as a licence to start project implementation without obtaining any environmental clearance.
Solely blaming DoE is not fair. The DoE by design has been made helpless to the undue pressure of the industrialists. At the same time, there is not enough political commitment to put the environment above everything. When the DoE fines a polluting industry, the accused appeals to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and often their appeals get accepted.
The collection of green tax in Bangladesh is very low and NBR blames DoE for not updating the list of polluting industries. Do you think green taxation can be useful for environmental restoration?
In the Environment Conservation Act, 'polluter pays' principle has not been expressly recognised. We don't have a clearly visible Green Taxing system either.
There are some examples of importation. For example, the buyer of a new car has to pay 300% tax. This is discouraging the purchase of a new car. But we can't call it a green tax. The industries have all along been pressing for facilitating the tax-free import of Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP). Even if the government relaxes the tax on ETP, what is the guarantee that they will keep the ETP functional round the year? Without an efficient monitoring system, which is not very hard for the DoE, just going for green taxation may not yield much.
Even though the DoE can collect a huge amount of fines, it will actually be deposited in the national treasury. There is no fund within the control of DoE so that the fines realised from the polluting industries would be utilised for the restoration of the environment.
In India, there is an environmental relief fund under the National Green Tribunal Act. Whatever fine is imposed by the NGT on the polluting industry is used for the restoration of the particular ecology. We don't have such a mechanism.
Do you think that hazardous industries, including shipbreaking, tanneries and lead-battery recyclers are reluctant to adopt green technology? Are there viable environment-friendly alternatives?
The realities for all the different industries you have named are different.
Shipbreaking in no part of the world has been made environment-and-labour-friendly, at the same time profitable on a commercial scale.
Western countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany and the UK can dismantle their own vessels on their territory. But they won't do it. They don't want their environment to be polluted.
That is why the ship owners in developed countries tend to pass the burden on our shoulders. In western countries, investment is required to make shipbreaking environment-and-labour safe with 100% mechanised solutions. Expert agencies need to be employed to dispose of the waste. As a result, such huge investment does not bring much returns commercially.
Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, ship breaking goes on with minimal investment: appoint a contractor who hands 250-300 malnourished and poor people the responsibility of dismantling the entire vessel, all by their hands. The labourers are deprived of job agreements, minimum pay scale and health insurance. And the DoE is not at all inspecting the whole process.
Without any investment, you just take a loan from a bank to purchase the vessel, dismantle it, collect all the iron, reroll and sell the metal and pay the bank loans. Dismantling vessels here is only an issue of money.
About the tanneries, I think they negotiated wrongly [before relocating to Savar]. When the tannery owners negotiated, they gave projections in a way that all the tanneries are large scale, which is not really the case. They didn't come clean during the negotiations. So now, the medium and the small scale ones are not being able to keep up with the cost of ETP. So they do not contribute to the central ETP, and are continuing to pollute the River Dhaleshwari. The regulation has been left in the hands of the Ministry of Industry (MoI), which does not understand the environment.
The tannery owners have got used to operating in the Hazaribagh model that was blessed by no inspection. They exported products at a cheaper rate and made the buyers happy.
Now the international donors [who funded the Savar Leather Estate] are also in trouble because the tannery owners are exposed. Brand buyers know that the end buyers will boycott them [because of sourcing products from hazardous factories]. So the tanneries are losing business. The tannery owners too want to carry on business as usual. They are definitely reluctant to adopt any technology whatsoever.
Now let's talk about battery recycling. I would say that the government needs to bring the activity under a more institutional framework. Lead battery recycling is still very informal. There is hardly any regulation. There are standards set by the environment conservation rules but since the mode of operation is very informal, they are allowed to do it the way they have been doing it. This should be stopped immediately.
Do you think that the existing laws can protect the legal rights of people vulnerable to uncontrolled industrialisation?
Largely yes, provided the institutions are honest on their agenda. If the MoEFCC talks like the MoI and the entrepreneurs are encouraged to start with their projects without DoE clearance, the existing laws cannot defend the people who are vulnerable to uncontrolled industrialisation.
The existing laws require political commitment. 'You can create one hundred tanneries but you can't create a single Dhaleshwari'- if that realisation is not reflected among the policymakers, you will not be able to defend the environment.
So it's more an issue of enforcement, which suffers a great deal due to a lack of political commitment and consciousness about the importance of environmental protection.
The RMG sector has started to comply with environmental issues because of international pressure. Will other industries learn from this trend?
The advantage of the RMG sector is that it is an export-oriented sector so the buyers have a role to play. In the case of ship breaking, it is just the other way round here. We are the dumping ground of the western world. This is a classic case where you see the hypocrisy of the western world. In the RMG sector, they are very serious about the environment and labour but when it comes to ship breaking, they act otherwise.
The tannery is our own industry. The raw material is ours so I want this industry to flourish provided that they follow the laws. The leather sector can learn from the RMG sector by complying with the requirements of environment and labour safety. They will bring in more business for the country. In this case, one has to find out how to give protection to the small and medium scale tanners because all of them are not Bay and Apex.
Even though the RMG sector is much more compliant now, there is still a long way to go. They have to find out how to recycle and reuse water in the RMG sector. We cannot be giving them our groundwater forever.
How can environmental regulations protect the interests of industrialisation and ensure environment conservation simultaneously?
A very wrong message has very convincingly been spread in society that if you want development you have to destroy the environment. That is not at all the case. You can industrialise by protecting the environment. At the end of the day, your industry remains sustainable. Otherwise, at any moment it can face pressure from the market. Wherever there is responsible consumerism and there is a 'no' to products that are coming out of polluting industries, you have to be environmentally friendly to ensure that your sales are not interrupted.
There are many countries in the world that are industrialising without polluting the environment. We are new in the sector but we have enough good examples to follow.