BELA and Environmental Justice in Bangladesh -By Mahmudul Hasan

Issue, National

Environmental justice (EJ) is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Divergence between environmental justice and key players of economic growth results in disparities of environment and socio-economic classes. This provides a platform for activists to resolve and eliminate the injustice carried out. This essay will be focusing on such a group, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, popularly known as BELA, and their work in countering environmental injustice along with efforts to develop a sound environmental jurisprudence in Bangladesh. It will also analyze and compare the impeding elements to environmental justice and what BELA is doing to solve the pending issues.
BELA is an NGO of lawyers, which was formed in 1992 in response to a global movement to protect and conserve natural environment while promoting environmental justice, lack of which have serious implications on rural based economies like Bangladesh. This organization emerged out of necessity of environmental equality in a country which at the time was barely 3 decades old. Due to the fragility of the institutions of the nation, it was ripe for the taking by cynical individuals seeking profit and power. Goals of such individuals always involve environmental injustice and disparity.
The challenges facing BELA are profuse with hostile opposition and a tumultuous legal system. There are approximately 210 laws regarding environmental justice in the country. Impressive for a country which is barely half a century old now. However, the process of effectuating those laws fall on the legal system. Due to a nascent legal system and politics mired with an ineffectual democratic process and uncertainty, steps to combat violations are usually gridlocked in an inefficient bureaucracy. Greedy conglomerates avail the lack of law implementation to operate in absolutely monopoly and with blatant disregard for rules and regulations. Naturally, they make no efforts to change a status quo from which they benefit greatly. Syeda Rizwana Hassan, a lawyer and environmentalist who is the chief executive of BELA explains in a Ted Talk show in Dhaka that the Director General in charge of the Ministry of Environment has the authority to set a public hearing to address environmental grievances brought to attention by citizens but is too insouciant to make it happen. She further mentions that it is one of the few countries in the world that has an environmental court system, yet most cases brought to that court are hastily disposed or just pending. BELA seeks to bring notice and change to this lack of inefficient government operation which is adversely affecting environmental justice. Finding a case for environmental justice is a matter of perspective. In the case of Bangladesh, environmental justice would be protection against natural disasters and mass displacement, maintenance of natural resources, protection against health threats and maintaining the contemporary agronomy which is a source of livelihood for millions. We see that the problem lies both within the human rights framework and environmental justice framework. The environmental injustice is continuing due to the absence of civil and political rights such as a free trial and a safe environment. From an environmental justice framework which seeks to eliminate harmful environmental and social practices, there is structural racism since there are social and environmental decision makers who are involved in the disparities of environmental hazard. BELA on a domestic level runs a lot like the Basel Action Network (BAN). Both are organized networks of activists dedicated to combatting toxic dumping. The organizations make progress through challenging and lobbying extensively to change and implement the law to ensure it does not happen again along with ensuring environmental equality and is committed to engaging the economic opportunity structure in a fair manner. The only difference is BELA lacks the resources to establish such a vast presence in the environmental justice field and thus relies on morally conscious individuals and good Samaritans to keep operations running. Indian activist and journalist Nitanand Jayaraman intently explains that the “roots of the problem are greed and double standards. The countries that are suffering from this plague lacks integrity among the government officials, regulatory measure and implementation infrastructure along with dangerous and outdated practices of class discrimination. The unwritten code that justifies development by saying that somebody has to pay which is usually disadvantaged communities or classes is absolutely inhumane” (Pellow, 81). The narrative explains in brevity the underlying problems of Bangladeshi institutions. One of a hierarchy and class system. While the whole country undoubtedly suffers from the several types of pollution produced, areas differ in technology and greenery along with the level of toxic dumping.
Comprising of well qualified and vehement lawyers along with a dedicated staff, BELA usually springs to action once it receives any grievances from local communities through any of its seven offices spread throughout the country. Most of these cases are brought to attention through grass roots level efforts. After finding a cause for environmental injustice, BELA uses the strategy of “Information politics”. According to a piece written by Keck and Sikkink in Activists Beyond Borders, “information flows in advocacy networks provide not only facts but testimony- stories told by people whose lives have been affected. Moreover, activists interpret facts and testimony, usually framing issues simply in terms of right and wrong, because their purpose is to persuade people and stimulate them to act…[a]n affective frame must show that a given state of affair is neither natural nor accidental, identify the responsible party or parties and propose credible solutions”. The framing of the work and building of a case is presented as a contravention by the accused party along with local media coverage to disseminate the information to the public. Once there is admittance and recognition that a problem exists, the constitution is utilized intuitively to address the crime being committed. Since the country relies greatly on international remittance and trade agreements along with aid, leverage politics takes place. In 2003, BELA was awarded the global 500 rolls of honors at the United Nations Environmental Program. Its executive was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental award for her persistent efforts in redressing people’s sufferings among many others. These awards are not only positively conspicuous, but it further helps to form alliances and partnerships with organizations abroad who have similar motives. Maintaining these connections help the organization get more media coverage which may at times cause foreign governments and organizations to voice concern. Even if the Bangladesh government does not relent to international pressure from NGOs, it certainly relents to the bad publicity due to its economy earning on manufacturing and exports.
Rapid industrialization which has been stimulated by government lobbying and subsidies has made Bangladesh one of the fastest rising economies in Asia. However, in the process, an exploding population along with ill equipped ministries and poor planning has turned the country into a virtual waste land. The country ranked 169th out of 178th in air quality, with its capital city and financial hub Dhaka being named the world’s most polluted city for the year of 2018. However, most worrisome of all is the indiscriminate dumping of waste in lakes and rivers which are spread throughout the outer skirts and low-income areas of the country and in communities inhabited by dwellers of low socio-economic status. First and foremost, a lion’s share of the pollution is caused by the textile, leather and shipbreaking industry. Combined, they account for most of the country’s exports and the tycoons of these sectors hold the most senior portfolios in the government or are some of the country’s most influential personalities. Where influence can be brought, organizations like BELA are usually snubbed by the government, and co-operation is a last resort to avoid court hassles. However due to the judicial nature of the work of BELA, the lack of a state mechanism to aid the disadvantaged and poor is compensated by BELA who usually attempts to fight these egregious violations pro bono. To understand why such an elevated level of pollution is tolerated and accepted, it can be compared with the various tactics government and industry officials applied to the Chester residents in Pennsylvania to keep them in the dark by applying highly technical languages in meetings. In one instance, a Chester residence was silenced when he asked about an incinerator to which the representative corrected him by using the interchangeable but more difficult term, “resource recovery facility” (Cole and Foster 41). In a similar condescending manner, people who are deemed less sophisticated or educated are told to be stoic and promised jobs and fortune. By the time they realize the results, it is too late. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious repetitive circle in various parts of the country and poverty can be harrowing to the point that it can make one forget many things.
Since its formation, BELA has waged war against individuals and institutions whose presence in the country has given many an ambivalent feeling regarding what the outcome may be. Despite that, the organization has been continuously victorious. First, it came into spotlight in the 1990s when it successfully sued mayoral candidates of Dhaka for environmental violations. Once the court deemed it against public interest, it paved the way for the environmental guidelines in monitoring the adverse effects of election campaigns on the environment. In late 2000s, BELA further intensified their efforts to bring about proper change when they pursued legal action against the ship breaking industry of Bangladesh. Going against the shipbreaking industry was a much more contentious and thorny issue. For starters, this was not causing pernicious immediate and visible environmental effects although the educated people knew but was causing deaths in alarming rates. If they did not die outright due to the dismantling of ships, they were most likely to be exposed to hazardous elements like asbestos and PCBs. Worst of all if exposed, going abroad for treatment was not an option for the workers who were earning mere dollars a day and Bangladesh does not have the technology to deal with such complex matters. While the shipbreaking industry completely refutes the claims of BELA, BELA has maintained its position by stating that it has no intention of ruining the shipbreaking industry of Bangladesh but is determined to see that it operates lawfully by ensuring that toxic materials are removed before the ships are brought to the yard for dismantlement. In March 2009, Bangladesh’s supreme court ruled that ships entering the country for decommissioning must be “pre-cleaned” in line with The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. One year later to the utter shock of the people of the country, it was found that the building of the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers Exporters Association) was illegally occupying government owned land. To add to this repugnant discovery, it was found that a former Prime Minister had laid the founding stone of the building while another had inaugurated it. Besides the illegal occupation of land, the building was unjustly blocking a canal which was crucial to the water body movement of some of the main lakes in the city. BELA had taken a keen interest in this discovery and had worked to have the order to demolish the building expedited. Despite the court order for immediate demolishment and the BGMEA’s move into building another lawful one, the illegal structure still stands today. This is a perfect example of impunity by organizations who flout directives of the government and the people.
BELA’s use of judicial pressure along with disseminating information to the public has progressed the country’s environmental justice. However, I feel that BELA can use symbolic and information politics along with accountability politics to be more efficacious. In a country which has over 160 million citizens most of whom are young and emphatic, a symbol can be a very powerful tool. The last time information and symbol was combined to ensure equality in the face of injustice, it resulted in the independence of the whole country. Boycott strategies would not be wise and would alienate the populace from such causes because the country is already riffled with numerous unrests. In addition, Keck and Sikkink in their book, “Activists beyond Borders” state the effectiveness of co-operating with trans-national activists which may have potential of increasing their funds allow them to be more effective. However, no matter how many NGOs and concerned individuals try to redress such issues of magnitude, it will not make a permanent mark. Greed and corruption are cancerous and if they are not removed, they spread and poison others. An absolute reform is need be initiated not by any leader, NGO or party but simply by those effected, the people.

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