The government slapped a ban on the use of polythene bags in the country with effect from 1 January, 2002 with a view to protecting the environment. But is the ban proving to be enforceable ? The answer is so apparent for all to see. There are hardly the signs of enforcement of the decision. A shopkeeper on being asked will tell you that he knows about the proscription but has stocks of polythene bags to last him for a long time and that he has no intention not to use them since he bought them with money.
It is impractical to expect people to stop using polybags because they are so habituated to the same ; they find such bags easy and convenient. A bad habit is not automatically rejected. It calls for hard persuasion and coercion for a change. Without this arm-twisting, we are continuing to see the use of polybags. The bags are being produced underground and sold as usual through the distribution channels. The authorities say the bags are clandestinely produced and it is hard to find them out or to stop their uses among millions of users. Or they even say the bags are being smuggled into the country and their use is unstoppable because of people's love for such bags.
But they do not accept, in the first place, the mistake they made in suddenly introducing such a ban. They should have considered all sides to it before taking the decision. Even in the Western countries where there is so much environmental consciousness, the use of polybags is legally permitted. But they make there biodegradable polybags that perish and, thus, meet environmental standards. They have not gone for outright banning of the polybag considering its popularity as a very cheap and convenient way of carrying goods bought from a shop.
Could Bangladesh not settle for a similar policy - keeping the polybags but putting pressure on their producers to make their environment-friendly versions ? That way both the snake would be killed without breaking the stick. The ban in relation to polybags in Bangladesh, therefore, smacks of poor policy that was inevitably destined to fail .
While discussing the polythene bag issue, one is also led to expressing anxiety about the overall environmental conditions of Bangladesh. Polythene bags are but a very tiny part of the total environmental degradation of this country. The environmental decline of Bangladesh is so extensive and diverse that the same calls for immediate formulation of multi-faceted policies and their through implementation to check and reverse the same. Piecemeal actions are no substitute for the wider environmental peril looming over the country.
It would be no overstatement to say that among the ministries of the government, the performance of the environment ministry has been one of the least appreciable ones since it was set up in the late eighties in response to the growing environmental hazards. The environment of Bangladesh has gone on declining seriously during the last decade and a half. But the ministry that was exclusively created to address this worsening environmental situation seemed to do little of substance as the environment steadily deteriorated and environmental concerns multiplied and intensified.
Dhaka city that was one of the world's most air polluted cities in the past became the worst air polluted city in the world three years ago. It may have slightly improved its status since that time by pushing the worst air polluting autorickshaws away from the metropolitan areas of Dhaka. But the air in the city still remains that of one of the most polluted ones in the world in the absence of other follow up measures.
Sections of rivers flowing around the big concentrations of urban population of Bangladesh have turned so polluted from unregulated discharge of effluents that these are like dark liquids devoid of oxygen and aquatic life.
Biodiversity of large parts of Bangladesh have been threatened by a number of man-made factors. One of them is the country's overpopulation and its consequent impact on the environment. But compared to the devastating population bomb that is building up for this small country, the response to it appears to be pathetically very little.
Widespread presence of arsenic in underground water, the loss of soil fertility from mono-crooping without crop rotation, toxicity of the soil and the food chain from indiscriminate use of chemical fertlisers and pesticides, etc., are the other growingly formidable environmental problems.
Deforestation has whittled down to below ten per cent the country's forests and vegetation cover ; the country's basic environmental balance has been threatened as a result. Afforestation programmes may have only slightly improved the situation. But deforestation activities are still considered to be greater than afforestation ones.
The coastal areas of the country are poorly supervised. Foreign vessels dump their waste matters too freely in the coastal areas and perhaps such vessels had dumped on occasions cargoes of very hazardous wastes in Bangladesh's territorial waters finding the same an unchallenged zone while indulging in such activities.
There are many sides to the environmental crisis that is gradually showing up in Bangladesh. Many are in the making from unregulated human activities within the country. But a very serious threat to the environment of the country has external origins. Bangladesh as a low lying country stands to be among the few countries to be worst hit by greenhouse gases and the earth warming phenomenon. Although Bangladesh should have long ago started an all out clamour to sensitize the international community to its plight and sought adequate international compensation and assistance to meet the nearing catastrophe, the leaders of this country continue to remain very surprisingly mum and unconcerned about it.
A new government will come to power in Bangladesh about thirteen months from now. All environment conscious people in the country will expect that government to take a new and hard look at the major environmental problems . If this is done, then environment surely would be recognised as an area requiring highest priority attention. The government will need to urgently get down to preparing a comprehensive environmental policy including, most importantly, the ways and means to enforce it.
The environmental decline has already much eroded the quality of life in Bangladesh. If it goes on like this, without a check and abatement, then Bangladesh could turn into a poisonous hell hole with worse unclean air, water, soil and surroundings where decent human existence and happiness would not be possible. Already such existence and happiness has disappeared considerably from the life and living of Bangladeshis due to the stressful environment. The environment related woes are likely to be worse and worse and, finally the worst, without an environment restoration policy in place and its proper implementation. Therefore, the incoming government can make a very big contribution to an area of very pressing need by introducing a proper environmental policy and enforcing it successfully.
What things the environmental policy must aim for are obvious : it should set up a system for all polluters to be warned and identified and made to suffer penalties for their unwillingness or inability to adhere to the policy. For instance, it should make a rule that all industries producing hazardous wastes must have a waste treatment plant for treating such waste before discharging them on soil, air or water bodies. Violators of the rule should have the choice of either conforming strictly to the rule or closing down operation.
Air pollution in the cities can be reduced by requiring automotive vehicles to compulsorily use catalytic converters and by fining or not allowing the movement of vehicles that do not keep clean engines or exhaust systems. Air pollution can be also reduced by compulsorily producing and distributing lead and sulphur free fuel for vehicles.
Arsenic in underground water can be tackled by spreading the know-how of inexpensive ways of filtering arsenic from the water. Similar dissemination of information about the benefits of crop rotation, regulated use of chemical fertlisers and natural pest control, can work wonders in preserving the fertility of the soil or preventing soil from becoming toxic. Even the passing of laws and their enforcement can be considered to this end.
The environmental policy should lead to environmental laws to protect and expand the country's forests and vegetation, to protect and increase the number of its reserved forests, to protect its bio-diversity, to promote environment friendly urban areas, etc. Externally, under the environment policy, Bangladesh must pursue a more strident and vocal role internationally to draw attention to the plight of Bangladesh from the earth warming.
But the policy will remain ineffectual as long as it remains on paper and is not enforced. For the environmental policy to bear fruit, it must go the whole hog with the creation of apparatuses such as the environmental courts, the environmental police, etc and their efficient functioning.