As the world continues to struggle to manage the debilitating effects of the pandemic, there are other ongoing threats to health and economy that should not be ignored. Air pollution is one such threat that has been around for decades and now become a serious environmental problem for all. Globally, air pollution is ranked fifth among global risk factors for mortality, according to the State of Global Air Report 2019. Bangladeshi cities are vulnerable to air pollution due to vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, and large-scale construction projects and activities. Large cities such as Dhaka are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. Dhaka is an overcrowded city—the crowd now beyond its carrying capacity for human life.
Urbanisation is a natural process and a global phenomenon. Currently, half of the world's population live in cities. By 2050, about 70 percent of the world population will live in urban areas. However, urbanisation in Dhaka has reached an alarming state. Dhaka is the densest city in the world. The metropolitan area of Dhaka has increased manifold over the years, as did its population, and at a faster rate. Like all megacities in the world, Dhaka attracts millions of people from all over the country for better economic opportunities. However, a large number of them end up working in the informal sector and living in poor conditions with limited facilities. Infrastructural development and other basic services fall far short of the requirement of the population of the city. They also become victims of environmental pollution which is more acute in this megacity.
The World Air Quality Report 2019 ranked Bangladesh as the most polluted country in the world based on exposure to particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). Dhaka has been listed as the second most polluted city in the world. PM2.5 is an atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter of fewer than 2.5 micrometres. It affects lung function and can create asthma and heart problems. Exposure to PM2.5 for a long period can increase chronic bronchitis and reduce lung function. Besides, there is also PM10 in Dhaka's air which is no less harmful. PM10 can also enter the lung through throat and nose and cause asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and strokes. Both types of particulate matter can lead to premature deaths. Meanwhile, the economic cost of air pollution is also very high. By increasing health costs and reducing the work potential of people, it affects total economic output and growth of gross domestic product (GDP). Of course, the impact in terms of higher human mortality and morbidity is not measurable in monetary terms. Lives are precious and invaluable.
Like many other cities in the world, the lockdown for containing the spread of Covid-19 reduced Dhaka's air pollution for some time. Closure of most economic activities including industrial production, infrastructure construction, transportation, and of educational institutions had contributed to this change. This, however, is not a solution to the air pollution problem since economic activities are essential for human existence. Therefore, appropriate policy measures and their effective implementation are necessary. In the environmental economics literature, a number of instruments are suggested for controlling pollution. Some of these measures may not be suitable for a Least Developed Country like Bangladesh. However, a few others are useful for pollution control. Those are applied in Bangladesh, albeit with limited success.
One of these instruments include the command and control approach through which the government directly controls pollution created by organisations and individuals. In Bangladesh, the government has adopted this instrument by formulating various policies that have set the maximum permissible level of pollution by industries. There is, for example, the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 which is an important move towards environmental protection paving the way for establishing the Department of Environment (DoE). The Act empowers the DoE to take action against a polluting entity. This Act was followed up by the formulation of Environmental Conservation Rules, 1997 which has determined the emission level of pollutants according to the nature of industries. Another important step was formulating Environment Court Act 2000 (later replaced by a fresh act in 2010) to take measures for offences related to environmental pollution.
While all these are positive initiatives, their proper implementation has remained elusive. It is not uncommon that certain pressure groups try to influence the regulatory bodies and get away with crimes of polluting beyond the level set by the DoE. That is why we still see unfit vehicles on the roads, or brick kilns across the country. On the other hand, those who are not powerful enough or are without connections with the powerful are often fined, and sometimes disproportionately. It may thus be unfair and also become a source of corruption.
The other instrument is the economic incentive through various fiscal measures such as emission tax and liability payment for pollution. This approach makes the polluting entities pay for their actions. Interest subsidy on loans for purchasing emission treatment plant is also a market incentive for pollution control. The government can earn revenues through these market-based systems of controlling pollution. Earnings from emission taxes can be used for social protection of the poor and other social development activities. Here again, implementation-related problems arise. In Bangladesh, in many cases, there are difficulties in getting relevant and correct information for determining tax on a polluting industry. Particularly, information on actual income or profit are not often reported. Therefore, the tax imposed on a polluter may be lower than the actual cost of harming the environment.
In fact, both these methods are difficult to implement in Bangladesh in a perfect manner due to weak governance and lack of resources. While implementing these measures, an important consideration should be their impact on the poor and low-income groups. Strict implementation of the environmental policies is needed to protect environmental resources from those who rob the nature. However, doing so may also reduce the scope for the poor to earn their livelihoods from the nature. Thus, environmental policies can have differential impacts on society. Sometimes policies also create inequality. It is the poor who find it difficult to pay additional fare for transports which use clean fuel and charge more. In controlling air pollution, these aspects of the environmental measures have to be borne in mind too.
Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). Views expressed in the article are the author's own.