Saturday (8 January) saw Dhaka claiming the spot for the city with the worst quality of air in the world. In fact, in terms of air quality, Bangladesh houses four among the world's 100 most polluted cities, making our country one of the most polluted places on earth.
Why have we failed so spectacularly in preserving our environment? At the heart of any environmental conservation attempt in Bangladesh lies the Directorate of Environment. Built as the primary agency for enforcing environmental standards, the DoE is tasked with predicting, monitoring, controlling and minimising environmental pollution at every level.
But a recent report from Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has shed light on the many inadequacies and problems with this crucial government agency. According to the report, 60% of the posts in the DoE are empty.
The report also mentions severe corruption, lack of accountability and lack of transparency. To assess DoE's conduct with the entities it is supposed to monitor, TIB also surveyed 353 businesses.
Among these, TIB found that 72% were situated within residential areas, which is in clear violation of our laws. Additionally, 51% of the surveyed businesses were operating with expired environmental licences.
But obtaining the environmental licences was not a clean procedure either. Almost 17% of the businesses got their license without a "no objection" certificate from their local authorities, which is an obligatory document.
This abysmal performance of the DoE is one of the main catalysts for our failure to protect the environment.
The Business Standard delved further into the problem in a conversation with Dr Iftekharuzzaman, the executive director of TIB.
TBS: What are the structural problems TIB has uncovered during its study of the DoE?
Dr Iftekharuzzaman: The problems start with the very laws the agency has to implement. There are significant gaps in the law, which allows polluting entities to avoid punishment. Some laws are not well-defined, leaving quite a lot of room for interpretation, which also allows polluting companies to get away.
But the main structural problem at the DoE is the lack of manpower. Overall, 60% of the posts are vacant. How can an agency perform its duties properly with less than half of the required manpower?
TBS: How does TIB evaluate the manpower the DoE currently has?
Dr Iftekharuzzaman: Even though the DoE is a specialised institution where knowledge regarding environmental science and industrial production is invaluable, it recruits employees in the traditionally bureaucratic way. Cadres from disparate sectors are appointed.
There are also no facilities within the department to educate these employees. As a result, people who do not have any knowledge in the field of environmental science end up calling the shots.
The department also lacks modern equipment for some tests, which can also be a catalyst for making wrong decisions about environmental licensing.
TBS: Have these problems completely handicapped the DoE from performing its duties?
Dr Iftekharuzzaman: The DoE undoubtedly has a lot of constraints. But it has even failed to perform the duties it should be able to perform. This failure is primarily caused by a lack of transparency, accountability and professional ethics.
We have seen that DoE employees have a tendency to approve industrial projects without proper documents. We have also found accusations that employees extorted bribes for either approving or renewing environmental licences. They have now taken the institution as a means to enrich themselves.
TBS: Do you think the DoE has been able to perform its duties as an independent institution?
Dr Iftekharuzzaman: Certainly not. We have seen the DoE approve polluting industrial projects, which have been undertaken by influential businessmen of our country. The department has either been influenced by its reputation or political power.
It has also failed to take an objective stance when it comes to government-mandated projects. Many of these projects are necessary for the rapid development of the country, we know that. But it is the duty of the DoE to assess the environmental damage the projects can cause and offer solutions to mitigate their harmful effects. We do not believe that the department has been able to achieve that.
TBS: How can the DoE be reformed in order to actually achieve its objectives?
Dr Iftekharuzzaman: The DoE needs a complete overhaul. There are too many structural, legal and governance problems that a mere reform cannot solve. The government has to take a holistic approach to make the agency effective.
This entails reforming laws, restructuring the bureaucratic framework and establishing measures to ensure transparency and accountability. This agency is at the heart of all our environmental conservation efforts. The government needs to go above and beyond to ensure its agency functions properly.
TBS: Has TIB observed any attempts undertaken by the government to overhaul the DoE?
Dr Iftekharuzzaman: We have not seen any such attempts as of yet.
TBS: As a country at the forefront of the fight against climate change, will the abysmal condition of the DoE be a deterrent for climate relief funds from foreign countries?
Dr Iftekharuzzaman: The availability of climate change-related funds are not directly connected to environmental conservation and we do not believe the DoE's performance will affect the funding from other countries.
But that being said, it puts Bangladesh in an extremely unflattering light. Our cities are becoming unlivable due to air pollution, 70% of industrial factories are located within residential areas - such factors put our commitment to environmental conservation and climate change in question.
But more crucially, the DoE's failures are affecting the lives of millions of Bangladeshis every day. That should be more than enough to warrant an immediate overhaul of the institution.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman, Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh