Who is to stop these polluters?

Illegal brick kilns at Bosila, Mohammadpur on the bank of river Biriganga
Illegal brick kilns at Bosila, Mohammadpur on the bank of river Biriganga

Highly polluting brickfields are still operating unabated across the country including on the outskirts of Dhaka posing serious health risks in this dry season, harming the nature and damaging arable land. Most of these conventional chimneys are baking bricks round the clock burning wood, tyres and low-quality coal. Replacing the chimneys with improved modern ones can relieve the situation to a considerable extent. But this issue has never been taken seriously by any government in the past two decades of rapid urbanisation.

The present sorry state of Dhaka’s west, where around 500 chimneys are polluting nearby households and the city’s air, highway-sides and riverbanks shows the apathy of the authorities concerned who are supposed to ensure a site checking before issuing businessmen and influential individuals licence to set up this now-profitable brickfield business. Moreover, tight monitoring is supposed to be carried out by the environment officials and the district administration while law enforcement agency personnel are to inform officials concerned to take measures in case they identify any wrongdoings defying the environmental laws.

The frustration mounts much when the government bodies do not function co-ordinately to act upon for the laws, the court’s orders and even the lawmakers’ concerns. Very recently, for the first time, MPs of the environment watchdog raised their concerns over Dhaka’s air quality, and identifying the brickfields three kilometres off Dhaka’s Gabtoli and Aminbazar areas as major threat, they directed authorities concerned to remove those by June 30. However, there is minimum possibility this direction might be materialised given the trend of dealing this particular issue by the successive governments. Before the MPs, many High Court judges in different rulings, upon petition or on their own motion, ordered and directed the authorities to ensure that no brickfield is allowed within three kilometres of any arable land, homesteads, municipality, forest or farm; use of standard-grade coal as fuel; and most importantly, no brick kiln is functioning illegally and using conventional technology.

But all these are still happening despite the government’s (ineffective) measures; advocacy projects of international bodies like the UNICEF and ADB, and outcry of the green groups and concerned citizens.

The Department of Environment (DoE), the monitoring and enforcement body of the government, is dealing with the whole issue, except for the issuance of licence, done by the district administrations. However, it’s not allowed to be issued without the DoE’s approval. But due to lack of manpower and unavailability of assistance from law enforcement agencies it draws flack in the monitoring activities and enforcement drives against those violating the rules. Even, the directives given by the DoE to transform the conventional plants into modern technology are ignored by the unscrupulous businessmen. Hence, the deadline has been extended till March this year. But yet in the last week of February, there is no sign of any development activities at the sites across the country, even near the capital Dhaka.

We have high-budget air pollution prevention and mitigation programmes undertaken by the government, and international development agencies and lenders. Hundreds of experts and scientists are working, hundreds of seminars are being organised, thousands of reports are being published, millions of taka are being allocated every year; but all these are of no use unless the “polluting machines” are made to behave.

It is astonishing and unfortunate for the citizens that no administration could remove the illegal brick kilns in Dhaka’s Aminbazar, Ashulia and Bosila areas, and compel others to transform technology in the last 20 years when their number has increased rapidly. Many of these kilns are functioning within 50 metres of the highway and river Turag.

According to a World Bank study, the conventional plants contribute up to 20 percent of the total premature mortality caused by urban air pollution in Dhaka (all causes combined). The Bangladesh Country Environmental Analysis reports that poor air quality in Dhaka contributed to an estimated 3,500 premature deaths in 2002 (World Bank 2006). Emissions of particulate matters from this kiln cluster are responsible for 750 premature deaths annually.

Replacing the brickfield cluster north of Dhaka with modern-clean technologies — suggested by the UNICEF would reduce current premature mortality. The new methods that require low coal consumption are so far the cleanest technologies in terms of CO2 emissions.

Stricter enforcement of laws needed: According to the existing law regarding baking of bricks, the unauthorised kilns must be removed, while licences of kilns burning wood to be cancelled. Moreover, the violators can be jailed for one year or fined Tk 50,000 or both for similar offences. The officials concerned can also fine those kilns for polluting the air. But there is almost little enforcement.

And the present scenario is that the brickfield owners with profit-making tendencies are running the faulty kilns unabated. The DoE with the help of law enforcing agencies should conduct frequent operations to ensure removal of those operating illegally and using wood and coal as fuel. In this effect, the government should immediately go for increasing the DoE’s manpower for the enforcement drives and monitoring.

Published in The Daily Star February 23, 2013












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