About a thousand day labourers and others in and around Nagarbari river terminal, in Bera upazila, are being exposed to air pollution due to open-air handling of thousands of tonnes of imported coal.
Such unregulated trade activities have been going on at the terminal for decades, but the authorities concerned continue to turn a blind eye to the issue despite its negative impact on human health and the environment.
Near about 20 to 25 traders now use the terminal to import coal. Before shipping it out to 16 districts in the north, hundreds of workers, without any respiratory protection, unload the coal from cargo vessels and store it in massive stockpiles on the terminal yard. Dozens of trucks are then loaded up with the cargo and sent out to different destinations.
While visiting the terminal recently, this correspondent saw about a thousand workers unloading and loading coal.
A group of workers was unloading coal from at least four vessels moored at the river terminal while at the same time, another group was loading coal onto more than four dozen trucks, lined up at the yard.
While a cloud of coal dust hovered in the air, none of the workers were seen wearing any type of gear that would protect them from various respiratory diseases affiliated with inhalation of coal dust.
Asked about the health risks, Sardar Milon Mahmud, a medical officer at Bera Upazila Health Complex, said during loading or unloading of coal at the terminal, a huge amount of coal dust is kicked up in the air.
Its inhalation is causing the workers at the terminal as well as people living in the vicinity suffer from various lung diseases including chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.
Such a massive amount of coal should not be handled in the open and workers who handle it should wear safety gears such as face masks and gloves, he added.
Shahadat Hossain lives on daily wage that he earns by loading and unloading coal at Nagarbari river terminal. He said it is difficult to breathe and make rapid physical movements with a face mask on. Wearing gloves also slows the loading or unloading work down. Since working faster means more money, the workers avoid wearing those during work.
Besides, when a worker makes only between Tk 600 and 800 a day, she or he cannot afford to pay Tk 50 to 100 on face masks or gloves every day, he also said.
Sabina Begum, another worker, said no one provides face masks or gloves to the workers. "We always suffer from cough and various other respiratory problems. But what can we do? We are poor."
Ikram Hossain, who works as an agent for one of the coal importers, Modhumoti Enterprise, at Nagarbari terminal, claimed that even though they provide face masks and gamchha (a piece of cloth traditionally used as a towel) to the workers at the terminal, the workers refuse to use those, saying that they cannot work faster with their faces covered in those.
Contacted, Bera Upazila Nirbahi Officer Asif Anam Siddiqi said the coal traders at the terminal have been ignoring their repeated calls for refraining from loading and unloading of coal in the open. They claim that it would cause fire hazard if coal is stockpiled in a confined area.
However, the upazila administration cannot conduct any mobile court at the terminal as it falls under the jurisdiction of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), he added.
Sazzadur Rahman, assistant director of BIWTA and also the in charge of Baghabari and Nagarbari river terminals, said the yard being used at the Nagarbari terminal has been leased out to private operators who are renting the place to coal traders.