Brick kilns used to be considered the prime reason for air pollution in Dhaka city until a recent report by Dhaka University’s Air Quality Research and Monitoring Center identified black smoke and fumes from run-down vehicles as the top emitter, which is reportedly liable for 50 percent of the air pollution. This smoke is basically created from the burning of liquid fuels by vehicles that have crossed both the expiry date and fitness validity. What is more worrisome is the data from Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) which shows that, at present, the total number of expired vehicles around the country is 5,00,000—and the number is increasing at a rate of 20-30 percent every year.
The role of our Department of Environment (DoE) is to coordinate the task of stopping the emission of pollutant air from vehicles, while Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) is responsible for checking fitness and issuing certificates. But the activities of these two government authorities have so far been largely limited to issuing press releases and conducting sporadic mobile court drives. Aside from these two governing bodies, the two city corporations of Dhaka and also the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) are responsible for keeping the air of the city healthy. But a recent report by Prothom Alo, published on March 6, revealed that among the BRTA, DMP and the two city corporations, none of them have the necessary equipment to measure the rate of emissions from vehicles. More frustrating is the fact that whenever someone tries to hold any particular government agency responsible for the unabated movement of illegal transport vehicles or the destruction of Dhaka’s air quality, they shift the responsibility onto some other agency in a bid to relieve itself of its obligations.
This laissez-faire approach belies the threats that air pollution poses to the health of residents. A study conducted by Md Khalequzzaman, professor of geology at the Lock Haven University, USA, shows that fine particles that are found in black smoke coming out of vehicles are able to penetrate deep into the human respiratory system, and from there to the rest of the body, causing a wide range of short and long term health effects. Besides, harmful substances like chromium, mercury, lead, copper, nickel and silver are regularly found in Dhaka’s air and, if inhaled in high amounts, many of these metals can cause serious illnesses. For example, lead accumulates in the brain, which may lead to poisoning or death while the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys and the central nervous system are also affected by the presence of this deadly element inside the human body. Children exposed to lead also face risks of impaired development, lower IQ, shortened attention span, hyperactivity and mental deterioration. Chromium can cause cancer, while arsenic is associated with skin damage.
Existing laws says that if a vehicle becomes unfit, reaches its shelf life or causes serious environmental pollution, its registration shall be cancelled immediately. But like in so many other cases, these rules and regulations are not being enforced by any authority. For example, to control air pollution and seize unfit vehicles, the High Court issued a total of nine directives on January 13, 2020. Frustrated by the inactivity of the concerned bodies in the implementation of these directives, the court once again ordered the respective authorities to take steps immediately on November 24 of the same year. But so far there has not been a single incident that shows that this order from the highest judicial body of the country has been executed.
Both the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1983 and the Environment Conservation Act 1995 state that emitting smoke that is injurious to both health and the environment is a punishable offence. But around half a million ramshackle vehicles are plying our streets on a daily basis with total impunity despite the existence of these laws. Even DoE and Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) had taken up a joint initiative to create a new law dedicated solely towards tackling the air pollution problem, namely the Clean Air Act-2019. After a conversation with AMM Mamun, a member of BELA, I found out that the draft of the law that was prepared by BELA has already been proposed by DoE. Though the process had started in 2018, the draft law is still waiting to be presented before the cabinet and the parliament for review.
The transport owners of our country are basically business-people whose main interests lie in making as much profit as they can with minimum efforts. As dumping old vehicles and replacing them with new ones require additional expenses on their part, it will be unrealistic to expect that they will all of a sudden start to take action to protect either the environment or the lives of the general populace. On the other hand, the transport workers including the drivers of the worn-out vehicles cannot be blamed much in this regard. They are just ordinary, impoverished people with little or no education who are trying to earn their keep and sustain their already struggling life. Basically, they run whatever types of vehicles are given to them by their bosses, and though they are often responsible for the road accidents that occur round the year, putting the blame for air pollution squarely on them will be unfair.
Holding only the transport workers accountable without pointing fingers to the transport bosses will not be of much help in combating such a far-reaching public concern as air pollution. The existing laws relating to this health hazard have to be implemented strictly, while the process of enacting any new law that will benefit the ecosystem has to gain pace. Health consciousness from the victims’ side is also necessary; the time has come for the ordinary people to start demanding quality transport service for their own safety. Most importantly, responsible authorities like the BRTA, DMP, the two city corporations of Dhaka city and DoE must join hands and undertake collective, well-coordinated efforts in cleaning the air and making it breathable. They can start by taking black-smoke emitting vehicles off the streets.
Source: The Daily Star.