Ship-breaking: Still considered a hazardous polluter

It was audacious, but at the same time a logical sequel of irregularities by government officials, to see major business leaders of the steel mills, re-rolling mills, plastic factories and brickfields demanding that they be relieved from being penalized for polluting the environment.

They also mouthed a childish whim with fury, that in case they are fined their factories must not be shut immediately. To justify their demands, they exalted with pride their investment and employment generation of a large number of people in the factories — which hardly provide congenial working environment and cause serious pollution in the surrounding areas.

Whatever it was, a threat or a request, in presence of the environment minister and head of the regulator — Department of Environment (DoE) — the profit-making businessmen of the heavily polluting industries were frustrated when the minister said they would not stop the enforcement drive, and the DoE chief defended the regulator by mentioning that the extent of pollution had already gone beyond related rules and that the fines were not that big.

The government officials also urged the entrepreneurs to abide by relevant laws and continue business by protecting the environment since both industrialisation and environment are equally necessary for the country.

But, do the businessmen really care about the working environment and the surrounding? It doesn’t seem so.

Because, we can see a considerable number of brickfields, plastic and metal factories have been operational in and around residential areas of Dhaka as well as other cities across the country. Mostly established defying laws, these are emitting black smoke containing hazardous components in the air and thus putting the health of millions of people at stake. The brickfields only on the west of Dhaka City — Basila, Amin Bazar and Ashulia — account for over 500 in number; there have been many steel re-rolling mills in the city corners and the banned polythene factories mainly in Lalbagh and adjoining area.

The government agencies concerned are, however, either incapable or reluctant to effectively curb the extent of pollution. But they are often seem complacent for whatever they are doing or not doing.

Similar instance of anti-enforcement stance by businessmen was observed in the past too, at least twice, in presence of the industries minister, whose office is responsible for ensuring that necessary measures are taken before starting a business. In the process, the DoE gives environmental clearance to the businesses and establishments.

Owners of ship-breaking industries in the country’s coastal areas last year in Chittagong pressed the minister to protect the largely profitable business, which is already labelled as highly hazardous throughout the world. The minister defended the businessmen saying that this industry must sustain because of its contribution and that the present government has declared it as an “industry”. Blasting environmentalists, he said the garment factories can’t be shut even though they are polluting the Balu, Turag and Buriganga rivers.

The minister last year at an international exhibition in Dhaka also heard complaints from manufacturers of plastic products, an emerging export sector, against the regulatory authorities which they claimed often take punitive measures against the industries blamed for harming people’s health and environment nearby. The minister, however, requested them to abide by environmental rules.

In neither of the cases, the minister could show his commitment towards protecting the environment first, but had defended the interests of those violator businesses who years after years have been dodging the use of preventive measures only to enhance profit margin for themselves.

The business leaders at the FBCCI meet described lack of special industrial zones and central water treatment plants (CETPs) as the major reason behind excessive pollution and blamed the government for not ensuring these facilities. The environment minister shifted the responsibility by saying that it was the industries ministry which is supposed to ensure installation of ETPs and meeting other requirements before setting up of an industry. The industries ministry during the tenure of the present government could not set any industrial estate though had pledged such initiatives for highly toxic tannery, garments, plastic and pharmaceutical industries etc. Around a decade after initiating the Savar tannery estate, it has recently passed all possible hurdles to get launched sometime next year.

Despite having an environmental law in 1997, we are yet to have any industrial law making ETPs a must for the factories discharging waste water and chemicals.

Meanwhile, the government agencies including the DoE appear soft towards the polluters in textile, garments, and dyeing and washing industry only because it is the largest foreign currency earning sector. Otherwise, the extent of penalty and shutting down of industries would have been much higher than the present day token-style enforcement drives.

A senior official of the DoE said penalizing industries instantly with huge fines is better than filing cases against the perpetrators. He defended his statement with a hope that “others might learn from the incident”, which has simply proved to be a highly ambitious one, and yet, ineffective.

The regulator, ironically, is blamed by businesses for fining too high and by environmentalists, for not enforcing laws against the polluters properly.

The DoE also faces severe shortage of manpower and thus, in a way, the government is allowing the unscrupulous businesses to carry on destruction of the environment amid poor monitoring, and on the other hand, saving money of the state exchequer. But, for whose benefit? How long the citizens will have to live unprotected and unsafe?

Most of the recent laws enacted in our country regarding environmental protection have been strong and maybe effective, but the problem remains with the implementation. There are many reasons behind this, but mainly due to the lack of political will in this regard, since most of the businessmen have links with the government high-ups or are supporters of the ruling party to influence action. We have also been experiencing that some laws and rules have been enacted several years after launching of the businesses. Can these be effective?

Learning from the present and the past, we should think forward and get prepared properly so that any situation like mass violation of environmental laws does not recur.

Besides some honest and wise government officials in different sectors, people from all quarters should assist the environment regulator in taking action against the polluters, and also by waging social movement compel them to adopt efficient measures. Since they do businesses in localities, they must care for the people. Then they must follow norms and laws to ensure better management of environment while making profits.