Begum Rokeya Sarani is just around one kilometre from the DoE head office. The condition of this road from Agargaon to Mirpur Section 10 is even worse. The construction of the metrorail has been going on here since 2015. And recently one side of the road is being dug up for drainage from Taltala to Kazipara.

A visit to the road on Wednesday saw a dust storm created every time a bus passed by. The buildings and shops on either side of the road were covered in layers of dust. The green leaves of the few trees there were not even visible under the thick dust.

A visit to the road on Wednesday saw a dust storm created every time a bus passed by. The buildings and shops on either side of the road were covered in layers of dust. The green leaves of the few trees there were not even visible under the thick dust

And yet the nine-point directive passed by the High Court in January 2020 regarding the control of air pollution, stated, among other things, that all construction materials must be kept covered, water must be sprayed to prevent dust from rising, and the conditions laid down in the tenders must be followed concerning digging up the roads.

It is not just in Mirpur or Agargaon that the court rules are being flouted. The directives are being violated in Tejgaon, the Dhaka-Gazipur road, the Purbachal road, the Mohammadpur embankment and other parts of the capital city. Construction materials are being transported uncovered. Brick chips and sand too are dumped on the side of the roads with no covering. Old vehicles spewing out black fumes ply the streets of Dhaka. And there is, of course, the old problem of the brick factories.

It is only natural that there will be more dust where there is infrastructure construction and repair work
Atiqul Islam, mayor, DNCC

Bangladesh had no change in ranking from 2020 in the Switzerland-based IQAir World Air Quality Report 2021. The report said Bangladesh’s air quality is the worst in the world. Among capital cities, Dhaka ranks second after the Indian capital Delhi. After that comes Chad’s capital N’Djamena, Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe and then Oman’s capital Muscat.

Concerned persons say that there are many reasons, natural ones, for which these other capitals rank high on the air pollution index. In the case of Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka, the main causes include neglect by the concerned government agencies, mismanagement and the government failing to prioritise air quality control.

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According to experts, the main cause of air pollution in the Middle East countries is the sandstorms across the deserts. Basically these sandstorms happen during the dry season in the Arab countries. That is why the cities of countries like Oman, Bahrain, Iraq and Pakistan rank among the cities with worst air quality. It is different in the case of Delhi. There the air pollution is exacerbated by the farmers burning straw after harvest in the states surrounding the city.

In Dhaka, the problems of the brick factories surrounding the city have been resolved to an extent. The main problem is within the city. According to the Air Quality Research and Monitoring Centre of Dhaka University’s chemistry department, dust and smoke contribute to 50 per cent of the Dhaka city’s pollution. A major source of this dust is mismanaged construction work and fumes from old vehicles. And 40 per cent of the pollution is from smoke created from organic materials like straw, wood and husks, as well as dry particulates. The air pollution by smoke and dust is steadily on the rise in Dhaka. The research said that burning garbage in different areas of the city also contributes to the pollution.

Today Dhaka has become a gas chamber due to the continued neglect by the concerned government agencies to control air pollution
Rizwana Hasan, chief executive, BELA

Professor Ahmed Kamruzzaman Majumdar of Stamford University’s Centre for Atmospheric Pollution Studies told Prothom Alo that the pollution in Dhaka city could be more than halved if the concerned government agencies did their jobs properly. Previously brick kilns had been the main source of air pollution in Dhaka city. This has new been replaced by dust from the construction work and smoke from the vehicles. It is evident that the government is not taking minimum initiative to control these sources of pollution.

Is development work responsible?

When the question of air pollution is raised, the government agencies blame the development work being carried out all over the city. They say that the people will have to bear with this inconvenience for the sake of infrastructure development.

Dhaka North City Corporation mayor Atiqul Islam, speaking to Prothom Alo on Wednesday, said, “The areas where there is more pollution are the areas where there is more development work. It is only natural that there will be more dust where there is infrastructure construction and repair work. But we are not sitting back idly. We have purchased vehicles to spray the roads with water and these are being used to spray the streets regularly.”

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However, concerned persons only partially accept the mayor’s explanation. They say construction work will give rise to dust, but this can be controlled with proper management. That is not done in government projects. The occasional measures that are adopted are nothing but eyewash, even though funds are allocated to control the dust pollution in these projects.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, urban planning expert and former chairman of the University Grants Commission Nazrul Islam said, “I live in Dhanmondi and there is no construction work going on there. But there too dust is entering the homes. I myself suffer from coughs and other ailments.”

Let our children breathe at least a bit less polluted air
Umme Kulsum, mother in Shewrapara, Dhaka

He said whether it was the metrorail in Dhaka or the flyovers, all of these projects were being carried out in a most inefficient manner. He further said that even the private sector construction work did not follow the rules and regulations. All this led Dhaka to ranking high on the worst air quality index.

What were the court directives?

Following a writ petition regarding air pollution in Dhaka city, in January 2020 the High Court issued nine directives to the Department of Environment and the two Dhaka city corporations. The directives included the trucks and other vehicles carrying sand, soil or garbage in Dhaka city must be covered; the soil, sand, cement and stones on construction sites must remain covered; the city corporation must regularly spray the streets with water; the conditions included in the tenders for work on roads, culverts, carpeting and digging, must be followed; certain time limits for vehicle movement in accordance to the road transport act must be determined and enforced; tyre factories without environmental certification must be shut down; the city shopping centres must place their garbage in bags and these are to be cleared away by the city corporation.

After issuing these directives, the court in November 2020 ordered that these be implemented.

Chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that today Dhaka has become a gas chamber due to the continued neglect by the concerned government agencies to control air pollution. The precedence set by the government agencies in disregarding the rules for construction work, will remain an obstacle to tackling long-term air pollution and other forms of pollution too.

‘No comments’ from the department head

Money is being spent on controlling Dhaka city’s air pollution. DoE has spent Tk 2.21 billion (Tk 221 crore) from 2009 to 2020 under the Clean Air and Sustainable Environment (CASE) project funded by the World Bank. According to a report of the parliamentary standing committee of the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, Tk 1.23 billion (Tk 123 crore) of this has been spent in foreign trip by officials in the name of training, consultancy fees, purchase of vehicles and construction of buildings. The project ended in June.

Earlier, from 2001 to 2006, DoE was implementing another project, the Air Quality Management Project (AQMP). At the end of this project conducted at a cost of Tk 880 million (Tk 88 crore), the World Bank carried out an evaluation which termed the performance as medium.

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When Prothom Alo asked the director general of the environment department, Abdul Hamid about what had been gained from the project, he responded, “I have nothing to say about this. No comments.”

Meanwhile, the local government ministry purchased 20 road sweeper vehicles at the cost of around Tk 300 million (Tk 30 crore) and at the beginning of 2021 handed these over to the city corporations. These have proven to be ineffective and so just lie idle now. City corporation sources say the water spraying equipment is being used to an extent, but there are only 23 of these between the two city corporations.

Let the children breathe

Even yesterday, Wednesday, Dhaka ranked at number two among cities with the worst air quality. According to the World Health Organisation, on Wednesday, the polluted air of Dhaka had 17 to 20 times more particulates than the acceptable level.

According to Stamford University’s Centre for Atmospheric Studies, in 2020 there had been 437 tonnes of dust in Dhaka’s air. In 2022 that has increased to 481 tonnes.

Physicians say that air pollution can lead to respiratory ailments, high blood pressure and other life-threatening diseases. However, the children of the capital city suffer acutely.

Umme Kulsum of Shewrapara in Dhaka city said that her five-year-old son had development higher levels of allergy in his blood than normal. He was always suffering from colds and coughs. She said, “Let our children breathe at least a bit less polluted air.”

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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