Concerned persons say that the department of environment is reluctant to ensure stern punishment of the polluters and grabbers. They impose fines by filing cases with the mobile courts and the polluters get most of this back through appeals. As a result, there is no decrease in either pollution or illegal encroachment.
According to the Columbia University’s Environmental Performance Index 2020, Bangladesh ranks at 162 among 180 countries of the world in protecting the environment. Countries industrially ahead of Bangladesh – Thailand, China and Vietnam – are also ahead of Bangladesh on the index. In fact, even Pakistan and Nepal rank higher than Bangladesh. India, though, lags behind Bangladesh. The index is based on 11 indicators.
When asked why there were so few cases at the environmental courts, additional director general of the environment department, Humayun Kabir, recently told Prothom Alo over mobile phone, “It will be investigated as to why there are less cases being filed at the environmental courts.”
How many cases at the courts
Dhaka’s environmental courts began functioning in 2003. There are two environmental courts for the Dhaka zone. One is a main court and the other an appellate court. There are presently 2,796 cases with the main environmental court. Of these, only 117 are under the environmental protection act, that is, only 4.18 per cent of the total cases. The trials of criminal and other cases are conducted at these courts.
According to the latest records, till 15 February this year, five cases have been sent for trial to the Dhaka environmental court. Last year there had been 29 cases. In 2016 it had been 4, in 2017 it was 6, in 2018 it was 19 and in 2019 a total of 3 cases had been filed.
Under the prevailing laws, if any persons try to file a case directly with the environment court, they are beset with bureaucratic tangles. This must be rectified. The law must be amended and the environment court be given full power to conduct the trial of all environmental casesSyeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA)
The public prosecutor at the environmental court in Dhaka, Firozur Rahman, told Prothom Alo that the environment department filed very few cases at this court. The environment department conducted their own mobile court and that was why they came to this court less.
There are 11 cases under the environment protection act under trial at the environmental appellate court located in Dhaka’s judge court premises. There are 2,206 other cases at this court. That means only 0.50 of the cases here are regarding the environment. The public prosecutor of this court, AFM Rezaul Karim, told Prothom Alo that over the past five years there have been only 11 environmental cases at this appellate court. Those are presently under trial.
The third environmental court is in Chattogram. Among the 2000 or so cases there, only 206 are environment-related, that is, 13 per cent of the total. It is said that the cases remain hanging as the investigation reports are not submitted in time and the witnesses are not brought forward. Public prosecutor of the Chattogram division environmental court, told Prothom Alo that the environmental department has an inadequate workforce. The department used its mobile court to deal with hill excavation and other environmental crimes. That is why there were fewer regular cases at the court, he said.
Delayed investigations, absent witnesses
Cases lie unresolved for years at the Dhaka environmental court. For example, around 17 years ago, on 24 July 2004, the police had arrested two persons in possession of contraband polythene. Two years after the cases was filed, charges were finally framed against these two persons, Md Shahin and Asadul. Not one of the 17 witnesses in the case have been brought forward.
Ten years ago on 12 February 2011, the department of environment seized 5 bulldozers for sand being lifted and land on the banks being encroached along the river Buriganga on the west of Basila bridge of Hazaribagh in the capital city. The department filed a case against unidentified persons in this regard. And till date it has not submitted any investigative report in this regard to the court.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, the environment department’s director (law) Khandakar Md Fazlul Huq told Prothom Alo that the main problem of the environmental court is that the investigation report was not submitted in time. Previously this would take a lot of time, but now initiative had been taken for departmental investigations and timely submission of reports.
The situation is the same at Chattogram’s environmental court. A case filed in 2009 for catching ‘jatka’ (not fully-grown fish) with ‘current’ nets from the sea in Cox’s Bazar is under trial at the Chattogram environment court. There are 12 witnesses in this case but not a single one has given deposition as yet. The court issues summons for the hearing, but they cannot be located. Of the two accused in the case, Md Ali is on bail and Md Selim has been absconding from the beginning.
Fines rather than imprisonment
According to records of the Dhaka environment court, there are few imprisonments under the environment protection act. In most cases the court imposes a fine on the accused. Of the 200 cases disposed of over the past 10 years, the court has imposed fines of various sums on the accused persons. In 28 cases the accused have been acquitted. In 24 cases the accused has been released.
Even the environment department’s mobile courts impose more fines than rather than imprisonment sentences. Over the past 5 years, only 166 sentences for imprisonment were passed by 4,440 mobile court cases. The fines were imposed for various offences involving banned polythene, illegal brick kilns, black smoke emissions, sound pollution, hill demolishing, landfills and more.
Chef researcher of the law commission, Fouzul Azim, had long been a judge at the environment court. He told Prothom Alo the prevailing environment protection law gives the department of environment executive powers. When there is a court, it is contradictory to have such legal provisions. There needs to be a balance. He said that executive powers should be curbed and there must be a system where like a police station, where the complaints can be filed at the department of environment.
No direct cases
Under the prevailing laws, the people or environmental organisations cannot file cases directly with the environmental court. They first have to lodge a complaint with the department of environment. If the matter is not resolved, then the persons can go to court.
According to Section 7 of the environment protection act, if the director general of the department of environment feels that a person or institution has violated the law, the DG may calculate the damages and issue directives for compensation. If the compensation is not paid, the DG may file a case with the court. If the directives are not obeyed, a criminal case can be filed.
Concerned persons say that the absence of any provision to file a case directly with the environment court is the main reason why there are so few cases. Chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), Syeda Rizwana Hasan, told Prothom that under the prevailing laws, if persons try to file a case directly with the environment court, they are beset with bureaucratic tangles. This must be rectified. The law must be amended and the environment court be given full power to conduct the trial of all environmental cases.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan went on to say the department of environment has failed to provide protection to the environment. Stern measures are not being taken against the polluters. The department must play an effective role if the environment is to be saved. Their capacity must be increased.
*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir