It is needless to speak about the necessity of a healthy environment in human life. To safeguard and enrich the quality of the environment in Bangladesh, the Department of Environment (DOE) was established under the aegis of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 1989.
Later on, the Environmental Conservation Act, 1995 & Environmental Conservation Rules, 1997 were enacted to corroborate the purpose. The Department of Environment is a follow-up to the Stockholm Conference, 1972 which deals with the environmental problems of Bangladesh.
Like most least developed and third world countries, Bangladesh is encountering acute environmental downfalls. Presently Bangladesh is explicitly in the grips of land degradation, soil erosion, salinity in the water, unplanned urbanisation, discharge of untreated human and industrial sewage, deforestation, threatened wildlife and marine biodiversity, etc.
These issues cannot be resolved without the proper administrative supervision from governmental bodies. The question is why environmental degradation remains underdressed in Bangladesh despite having a separate governmental department and statutory laws to prevent its spread.
One of the major drawbacks is only a few sections of the act and rules deal with conservation, protection and enrichment of the quality of the environment. The act and rules mostly talk about offences and punishments. To fulfil the objectives of the DOE, the insufficient number of provisions regarding conservation is a significant barrier.
In this regard, the irrational classifications of industrial units in the Schedule-I of the rules is notable. Specifically, ship-breaking and assembling of batteries should be placed in the Red category instead of Orange-B with public toilets placed in the Orange-A category instead of the Orange-B category considering their impact on the environment.
Additionally, the punishments assigned for some of the offences committed under this act are also unbalanced. Specifically, the penalties for regulation violations by the ship-breaking industries are very limited. Almost every offender has to go through the same sort of punishments with no diversification regarding the gravity of the offences.
Section 6 (e) puts a strict embargo on filling up the wetlands except for public interest. Here, the term public interest is inconspicuous and has not been defined anywhere in the act.
In reality, industrial wastes are being dumped beside the surrounding rivers until they gradually fill up the river. Buriganga has already been declared clinically dead. The environmental conservation act and rules do not regulate the gradual filling of the wetlands, canals and rivers.
We observe the proliferation of a wide range of polyethene nowadays, which is very harmful to the environment and a punishable offence under section 6(a)(b) of the act. Plastic bottles or packets which are above 0.5 microns cannot be recycled further.
Interestingly, Section 6(a) says that the production and stocking of these sorts of bags are not prohibited if it is done for exporting purposes. This is a clear violation of the "No Harm Principle" established under Stockholm Conference, 1972 and the Rio Declaration, 1992, which is regulated by the international courts and punishable under Customary International laws.
Section 5 of the act regulates the provision regarding Ecologically Critical Areas (ECAs). The DOE has declared 13 ecologically critical areas where the government banned the initialisation and continuation of industrial activities or processes.
In reality, these bans are blatantly disregarded in the ECAs. Under the ECA rules, no powerplant can be established within 12 km of the Sundarbans buffer zone.
But, the distance between the proposed Rampal power plant and buffer zone is only 4 km. This polemic power plant will burn around 4.75 million tonnes of coal and produce nearly 0.71 million tonnes of ash and 0.5 million tonnes of sludge and liquid waste according to research conducted by CEGIS.
According to their survey, 47 percent of Sonadia Island was surrounded by aerial root trees. Regrettably, 26 percent of the forest was already destroyed in the past two decades.
The proposed Sonadia deep-sea port and Matarbari coal power plant will certainly have a devastating impact on the environment. Similarly, environmental degradation has also been noticed in other ECAs like Turag-Buriganga, Shitalakshya rivers, and the Jaflong-Dawki river due to human intervention and industrial pollution.
The area where the Rohingyas were resettled is also an ECA. They have also been given shelter by cutting down the hills there. The ECA rules and regulations to protect the ECAs and penalise breaches of the law fall short of protecting the environment.
The ugly truth is that the Department of Environment lags significantly relative to some other bureaucratic institutions, so adjustments to improve the exercising of jurisdictional power is vital. To illustrate, while resettling the Rohingyas, no permission was taken from the DOE which resulted in hills getting dug and eroded under the approval of the DC office (Land).
While it can easily regulate the large industries, the DOE has struggled to regulate smaller industries as they can relocate at any moment. While relocating the industries, only the level of pollution was taken into account but not the size of industry/s. This is also a major loophole of the act.
The DOE is also confronting some managerial problems like the lack of manpower, monitoring gaps, strategic and infrastructural weaknesses, the lack of experts and technical specialists at the operational level, the lack of coordination between the Department of Environment and other departments, etc. which limits the effectiveness of its initiatives.
Additionally, stringent initiatives are not taken for the most critical areas, due to a conflict of interest between the Department of Environment and Department of Forest in regulating the ECAs. The DOE has been given the power to issue Environment Clearance Certificate (ECC) in which enables concerned officials to potentially abuse their power.
The funding for most of the projects of the DOE is highly dependent on foreign aid which enables it to operate with less scrutiny and oversight from the government. Environmental policies need to be reformed from time to time according to the situation.
Local funding must be increased to mobilise the department. Environment-related legislation and policies must be institutionalised. Only then will the right to life be reflected properly through the strong operation of the Department of Environment. The Department of Environment can play a decisive role in alleviating the insurmountable threat to the environment in the immediate and distant future.
The author is a student of law at North South University (NSU) and can be reached at [email protected]
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.