Maintaining environmental standard in the time of rapid industrialisation in Bangladesh
When we talk about environmental standards regarding industries, it is not only limited within the factory; it is also related to the surroundings and, in a greater sense, to the environment at the national level. For example, suppose an industry uses a chemical as a raw material without maintaining any environmental standard, in that case, it can affect the workforce, and the surrounding environment; and the surrounding environment includes water bodies through which the chemical could be spread further. We are facing these challenges in Bangladesh with the growth of rapid industrialisation.
If we want to understand the industry's environmental standards, we have to look at the internal environmental practices of a factory. It is also essential to see whether the factory maintains the national guidelines and, as a whole, the national policy or rules on conservation, preservation, waste management and recycling.
When we talk about environmental standards, we raise some points from the perspective of an environmental solution. And when we talk about environmental pollution, we limit the concept into some particular types of standards and specific kinds of pollution. For example, in the case of environmental pollution in a factory, we indicate the water pollution caused by poor water management. Here, you can also have air pollution, noise pollution and soil pollution – all of which could happen simultaneously because of poor environmental standards and their practices by the factories or industries concerned.
For example, different types of pollution arise in different kinds of industries. But because of the nature of reporting, these are getting more focus in our country. The garments sector enjoys priority in our country, which is why there are reports about lead standard certified factories, or we can see reports about water pollution caused by the textile or leather sector.
On the other hand, cement factories or coal power stations are significant contributors to air pollution. Or the real estate sector contributes to noise pollution. So, different industries are responsible for different types of pollution in various formats and quantity.
Because of our lack of understanding, we only see these pollutions in the context of human health only, not from the point of view of other living objects, like fish which are disappearing from the rapidly industrialised areas.
We also observe reports about land grabbing by powerful people, but that does not come from the environmental damage that these sorts of illegal activities cause. That is why the High Court has declared the rivers as living entities to save them from the land grabbers' hands. We have to see the environment standards from these perspectives.
If we approach the topic from the market context, we will see that the consumers of these sectors are aware of the environmental issues day after day. The companies have to comply with the demands of foreign buyers. Bangladesh is gradually going from producing lower-end products to upper-end products. The latter's customers are more sensitive about these standards, so these industries should maintain their set standards more strictly. In future, the need to comply with environmental standards will increase from the perspective of gradually competitive points.
Another critical aspect of environmental standards is that our industrial sector is based on low-value, less toxic raw material-based production basket. This restricts the pollution level within a limited scale of production. But in future, we will produce diversified products like chemical intermediate products. As a result, there is a fear of rising environmental vulnerability.
Besides, there will be large scale urbanization centred around industrial zones which will also create environmental challenges. So, there will be environmental vulnerability along with industrialisation if we do not deal with the issue properly.
How successfully we limit environmental vulnerabilities will depend on our national institutions that will apply industrialisation and urbanisation and comply with standards. In our country, the Department of Environment (DoE) has been trying to work with a limited workforce. There are also environmental policies, environmental law-1995 which spell out obligations on maintaining environmental standards. But it has been hard to ensure that factories comply with standards due to limited workforce in the DoE.
Bangladesh is a small country. The effect of mass industrialisation and urbanisation on human health, water bodies, on other living objects would be much higher here. From that perspective, we must comply with environmental standards. There is no scope to consider economic development and sustainable development in parallel, considering the danger of environmental pollution. We have to comply with rules in every sector. If we cannot ensure standards, there will be a severe impact on our environment.
For example, our coastal areas have been vulnerable due to climate change, causing internal migration.
The adverse effect of industrialisation in countries bigger than Bangladesh is less because they have much more land. But many countries like Bangladesh have been taking steps to maintain environmental standards and rapid industrialisation. For example, Vietnam. This South-East Asian country is complying with high-value production, an area where we are lacking.
Not only garment products, Vietnam is a major exporter of leather goods and electrical and electronic products. Their recycle industry is very strong. Shrimp is another essential export product of theirs. Vietnam is also making a significant investment in renewable power plants through which it will produce around 2 lakh MW electricity.
However, the countries which have been gradually shifting towards environmental compliance or are under international pressure to comply with the conditions of COP 21 are relocating their toxic and environmentally polluting industries. Unfortunately, Bangladesh is one of their destinations because we do not comply with environmental standards.
Different countries have been shifting their coal-based power plants into our country for their benefits. This is another kind of politics. We have to come out of this situation. We have to be careful not to become a ground for sunset industries or an environmental dumping ground.
To ensure environmental standards, we have to look at proper laws and institutions. From the 1990s to 2005, environmental policies, laws and rules were implemented properly in our country. These laws and regulations are not quite of an international standard, but they are effective enough for our level.
The Department of Environment is the only authority in this regard. But we could not make this institution strong enough to monitor industries across the country. There is another institution, the Ministry of Industry, which oversees such matters as pollution. There is an urgent need to bring these institutions under a common umbrella.
We often see the news of different factories being fined for not complying with environmental standards, but in my research, I found that these institutions have only the power to fine, but they cannot collect it or implement the punishment as they do not have magistracy powers. If they are given powers, they will be much more effective.
There is a tendency of avoidance in us regarding maintaining environmental standards because it is expensive both in terms of investment and operating expenditure. As a result, industries or factories do not want to comply with standards.
Solid waste management is another big crisis in our country. We can see the growth of a linkage industry based on solid waste, which is very dangerous. Industries use solid waste from the leather factories in producing poultry feed. It has been hard to shut down these linkage industries despite the environmental and health hazards they pose. In some cases, these solid wastes have been used in the agriculture sector.
But many industries or factory owners avoid maintaining environmental standards because there is a severe lack of monitoring, and there is also the case of corruption involved in this regard. They know the authorities do not have the human resources to visit their factories regularly. That is why they do not fear continuing without complying with the standards.
Sometimes, they are given the power of monitoring their own standards by the institutions as there is not enough workforce. The factories need to renew their environmental certificates every year. In this regard, sometimes they give their own environmental standard reports.
To avoid these sorts of crises, the total monitoring system should be under a single umbrella in the government's hands. We can also learn a lesson from the garments industry, where an industrial safety guideline was imposed after the tragic Rana Plaza incident. To control environmental standards, we can involve different international organisations which work on these issues. Besides, local institutions also should be strengthened.
There is also a need to increase awareness among the general people. We have to create different pressure groups in various levels of society by awareness programmes, involving people from every level of society.
We all want industrialisation, but that has to be sustainable, has to ensure workers' lives and livelihood, has to ensure safety and maintain environmental standards. We have to ensure these standards in the long term to create the scope for further industrialisation in future.
Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director at Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).