There is something fundamentally off about the idea of development.
One fine Eid morning, the Eidgah committee of my small town launched a fundraising campaign to pave the Eidgah with concrete. I objected, saying, we only use the field twice a year, for a couple of hours. On the other 363 days, cattle graze on it, poultry and even some birds look for insects in it.
Why would we cover and render it useless for the rest of the year? The president of the committee asked, "So you don't want development?"
I wanted to argue, "The development of what?" However, I refrained before the discontent in the eyes of the man turned to anger.
Over the last year, under a World Bank funded project, miles of sewers were constructed in that town, all of which ended up in the canals, rivers and wetlands without any treatment of the liquid waste. To my dismay, many people are quite happy with this development despite the water pollution.
Meanwhile in Dhaka, we have invested a lot of our money and time in developing physical infrastructure over the decades. Flyovers – constructed to reduce traffic congestion – merely moved the congestion from here to there.
A UNB report quoted Professor Shamsul Hoque of the Department of Civil Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology as saying that the construction of flyovers in the city did "irreparable damage" to the city. The urban planning expert also feared the situation may not improve even after implementation of the Metro Rail project.
With all the mega expenses in the mega projects, the first few days of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the country exposed the severe neglect of the health sector. Our health services collapsed like a house of cards when patients with novel coronavirus-like symptoms started pouring in.
These mega projects not only siphoned-off the resources, but also significantly damaged the city's living environment. In February this year, while speaking in parliament, Environment Minister M Shahab Uddin blamed mega infrastructure projects for Dhaka's air pollution, which is causing various respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as death.
Weeks into the worldwide shutdown, the global meme community started a hashtag "The air is so clean that..." Netizens of Dhaka joined the trend and memes showing a view of the Tajmahal from Tejgaon and of Everest from Elephant Road swarmed social media.
The fact, however, is that Dhaka's air is not actually clean yet. Until May 3, when this article was being written, the air quality index swang between 50-up and 200, meaning the quality is moderate to unhealthy.
A score below 50 would indicate good air quality. We have messed up Dhaka's environment so badly that more than a month of total shutdown has not been enough to fix the air quality of the city.
At least, one might say, air is not in the "hazardous" or "very unhealthy" zone – as it was before the shutdown began. Many are wondering whether this trend will continue after the shutdown is lifted. While I agree we should do our best to that end, there is actually little hope. We will probably resume economic and development activities more aggressively.
In fact, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has already predicted that Bangladesh's GDP growth rate will jump to 9.5 percent in the next fiscal year after recovering from a plunge to two percent due to the pandemic. Earlier, the IMF had projected seven percent growth.
This growth will not come without an environmental cost. In fact, economic growth itself means increased resource exploitation. Additionally, the government is expected to face a liquidity issue managing the pandemic, which might render us unable to do anything significant to take care of the environment. It is difficult to claim that we were ever serious about the environment – the point I'm trying to make here is that we will probably care less about it once the shutdown ends.
Development at the cost of environmental and ecological balance is not a monopoly of the developing world. Since the 1960s, water storage and diversion infrastructure built on the Colorado River in the US caused the river to dry up 160 km short of its delta, at the tip of the Gulf of California, destroying the rich delta ecosystem and depriving numerous aquatic and bird species of their habitat. The list of ecologically disastrous projects implemented in the developed world is not short.
Every time Man developed infrastructure to build a civilisation, what he basically did was destroy habitat for countless other species. Called a civilisation, that is the most barbaric and uncivilised thing to do, if you look at it from the perspective of those affected, extinct or locally-extinct species. The level of damage is kind of obvious, but the point to ponder is that we have not tried enough to co-exist with other lives on Earth.
Human beings have been in search of aliens for a long time. Many novels and movies depicted alien invasions carrying out destruction on earth. One day, like a revelation, a thought crossed my mind that maybe we, humans, are the aliens. We are disproportionately more intelligent than other species of the planet, and we do pillage and destroy Earth just like the aliens in the movies.
Then I realised, Abrahamic religions also support this thought. Adam and Eve came to this world from some other place called Heaven. Then I discovered that a US ecologist named Ellis Silver actually wrote a whole book titled "Humans are not from Earth: a scientific evaluation of the evidence" to suggest that humans were actually put on Earth by aliens – tens of thousands of years ago.
He looked into some interesting physiological features of humans and argued that with all the weaknesses and design flaws, humans could not have evolved alongside other species on the planet. However, let us not lose ourselves in this debate. All I want to underline is we act like an invasive species on Earth.
Sometimes, I choose to speak using religious terminology, because most of the people are still believers – despite the inconsistencies between belief and our actions. So, let me put my question this way: Man was banished to Earth because he broke the rules of Heaven, so, now, where do you think we will end up after breaking Earth's rules and upending the balance of nature?