The capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, is a killer city and shows no sign of letting up on its homicidal spree. Every day, newspapers report of one death or another as people fall to everything from bullets, berserk trucks, to less prosaic ones like slum fires. Nevertheless, such a dangerous place has not deterred a high migration rate to the city from the rest of the country. Either the state of life in Dhaka has not been well advertised or it’s really much worse out there.
And Dhaka doesn’t just kill people or murder them through conventional mayhem. There is a more dangerous killer at work and one that works at a slow but sure pace: pollution. Air quality has reached a point where parts of Dhaka have deservingly earned the distinction of being among the most lethal places to breathe in the entire world. The only people who seem to be glad about this killer pollution are the mask makers, as hundreds of Dhaka residents go around sporting this useless protection against the foul air; the one thing it does well is hide the citizens’ grimaces. The mask is also a symbol of the state of things: the protection the people can access can’t save them.
The matter most deserving of attention, lead pollution, has been there for years and the cause is known to all. The imported petroleum, used primarily by autorickshaws, is of a cheap variety and has extremely high lead content. It is sold in the market under the label of “octane” without being detoxified. The “autos” use two-stroke engines which spew large volumes of lead into the air. There were protests aplenty, but nothing was done for long. Not even when medical evidence was presented by doctors and activists to show that children and adults were being seriously affected by lead poisoning.
Apparently few are bothered by the mortality and morbidity caused by this pollution. There is no scope for legal relief, and far worse, other pollutants may be lurking around the corner. Hacking down tress, destroying water bodies along with the rivers that keep Dhaka going, and the filling up of the city’s natural canal system to provide for much-indemand housing, are the stuff of nightmares. These are no secrets and by repeating them, one runs the risk of sounding not concerned, but banal
It took months of intense media pressure before the authorities took the simple decision to ban the present grade of fuel, and import a better grade which will considerably reduce the lead poison emission (what really pushed the government, some say, was a loan commitment by the World Bank). Meanwhile, it is said, the autos will be phased out in another four years.
But for all this, Dhaka’s pollution problems are soon going to go out of focus because Bangladesh is gearing up for yet another round of political turmoil—a result of the ceaseless, low-grade conflict between the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a conflict that has given deja vu a bad name. Since few can discern any tangible reason for the animosity between the two, one is forced to assume that personal or personality factors play a major part in it.
Politics and social concern have become alienated from each other and issues of governance don’t include matters relating to social or environmental management. South Asian governance in the last 50 years has always been largely a result of external compulsions. Doles and donations have overwhelmed the social responsibility of politicians who see politics as management of the state and not necessarily of habitats, something that has been downgraded to the realm of “non-government” activities.
That would have been quite all right, except that the NGO movement is itself suspected of having lost much of its announced idealism. The non-governmental sector is beginning to resemble more and more the unofficial face of the government’s own delivery system and has even become part of the conventional political scenario. They want to be more official, more establishmentarian, and so the people are left facing a social and environmental crisis without a committed ally.
The fact that donors have to step in and demand that something be done about the state of pollution means that issues that should have been handled by the governments now flash across foreign computer screens to be identified as problems that need immediate attention.
It is easy to say that the entire process of donor-driven development and its attendant lack of context and competence is responsible for the accelerating crisis. The capacity of national governments to tackle emergency issues is diminishing as the whole situation is being turned into a matter of funding and repayment, and needs of donors, lenders and recipients.
It is also easy to say that national governments are looking less and less capable of improving the lot of the people by taking bold and meaningful decisions because political considerations overrule all other factors. If it’s easy and seems right to most, why shouldn’t it be said again, again and again?