When the protector becomes the predator
"Money can open every DoE door"—I read out the news heading in this daily only to trip over the last two words. The stuttering tongue-twister made me chuckle. Then again, this is no laughing matter—especially when the money mantra is reportedly used to open the doors of malpractices in the Department of Environment. The Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) put its money where its mouth is to point out the "irregularities, inefficiencies, and corruption" within the government organisation in charge of protecting our environment. We were told how a Tk 5,000 licence fee needs a minimum of Tk 1,08,000 speed-money to be processed. The report offered other facts and figures for the consumption of avid readers keen on transparency in our civil administration.
I am sure there is going to be an official rebuttal blaming the TIB for this "notoriously fabricated, agenda-ridden, anti-state" report. There will be punches and counterpunches; even the high official who was unavailable for comments earlier will surface with a rejoinder. TIB will launch its "international" defensive missile to negate the "nationalist" diatribe. The conversation will soon die down. We will wonder why it was even considered a news item. Anyone who has sought government services knows or has experienced some level of systemic corruption. Therefore, to cry corruption in the system is like asking, "Are fish really wet when they're underwater?"
Alternatively, you may visit the Yale University site on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI). Out of 180 countries whose data have been analysed to prepare the country index, Bangladesh ranks 179. Only Burundi stands like the snake at 99 on a ludo board between us and the end. The list, based on 32 performance indicators across 11 issue categories, measures the environmental health and ecosystem vitality of a country. In the preamble, the report mentions a connection between the wealth of a country (i.e. GDP per capita) and the investment in outcome-based policy programmes. The mismatch between our recent economic prosperity and environmental health confirms the TIB report in a circumstantial manner. While access to adequate financial resources, in theory, implies the capacity to build the necessary infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, reduce air pollution, control hazardous waste, and respond to public health crises for human well-being, corruption in the system remains the chink in the armour as it demonstrates a lack of good governance in our civil bureaucracy.
We are branded as laggards in quite a few categories. In environmental health, we are placed in the 178th position, just above Nepal and India. The other bottom categories in which we are vying to be in the last position are air quality (179), inhalable particulate matter (PM2.5) exposures in the air (178), PM2.5 exceedance (179), heavy metals (177), and lead exposure (177). The irony is, according to the TIB report, a total of 293 DoE officials went abroad 10 times under a project titled "Clean Air and Sustainable Environment." And one official went on all 10 trips. One wonders how these officers added to the carbon footprints through these "educational" trips.
There are a few areas in which our EPI rankings fare slightly better. They include fisheries (28), marine protected areas (36), species habitat (41), agriculture (52), and forests (98). However, in biodiversity and habitat, we rank 133, and in ecosystem vitality, we rank 153, suggesting that we have yet to attain the baseline rank.
As a developing country, issues of industrialisation and urbanisation are likely to be at odds with sustainability. Commitments to rule of law and even-handed enforcement of regulations are necessary to strike a balance between present growth and future resilience. Despite our SDG target, this is where the government officials are failing us. Say, for instance, if an environmental surveyor is tampering with the report of an effluent treatment plant to downplay the level of toxicity released by a factory, the government's commitment to sustainability is compromised. The financial benefit of one officer will have a butterfly effect on many, including the ones using the water for irrigation, sanitation, livelihood, and so on.
However, corruption is not the only instance of the violation of environmental laws. Some of the challenges in the implementation of these laws include "lack of specificity, procedural complexities, lack of accountability, partisan state machinery, and the absence of environmental consciousness among the common people." The monopoly of the system can be exemplified by the get-out-of-jail card available to the DoE director-general. Section 18 of the Environment Conservation Act is a case in point, where any damage or injury done by his actions is construed as a good faith act, which will protect him from being liable.
The lack of environmental rule of law is also symptomatic of the corrupt system. The TIB report mentions that the DoE officers prefer levying hefty fines to rendering justice in environmental court. The systemic flaws are allowing individuals to open doors for money, but they are also making us vulnerable to climate change and its consequent hazards. The money these corrupt officials are hoarding will be useless against the fury of nature once it starts hitting back. Do you think this tainted money will shield a corrupt official or his family members from the carcinogenic air and water they are responsible for? Only a fool will leave the door open for money to walk in, while allowing the wrath of nature to rush in.
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).