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Some time back an elderly relation of mine was visiting from England and came to stay at our place. We have a small verandah where I often have my tea in the morning, read the newspapers and listen to music on the radio. My guest joined me there on the second morning of his stay before we went in to breakfast. We did the same the next day. On the third day he didn’t turn up on the verandah and I met him at the breakfast table. “You must have woken up a bit late today?” I queried. “No,” came his irritated replay, “The noise sitting in your verandah is deafening!”

It is true. From 7:30 in the morning, the cacophony of car horns is enough to drive anyone crazy. I have grown used to it, but if I talk to anyone over the phone in the morning from my verandah, they invariably ask if I am on the road. I have to answer, no, I am at home. The horns have erased any distinction between the noisy roads and the normal sounds of home.

My elderly relative has lived 60 years in England. He didn’t last four days in my house and shifted to another relative’s home. He said they live on the eighth floor, so the noise can’t be that bad there.
Later we heard this Bengali relation of mine cut short his three-week visit and left within 10 days. He had to escape the monstrous noise of the city. Where can we go?

Our drivers seem to believe that the denser the traffic jam, the harder you sound your horn. It is as if the blast of the horn will cause the vehicles in front to magically part and let you sail through to your destination. And the bigger the car, the louder the horn. 

That’s not all. Previously only ambulances and government vehicles used for emergency purposes would use sirens. I’ve seen no other city with ambulances making as much noise as in Dhaka, not even in Bangkok. 

Then there are the large black vehicles with their dark windows and windscreens which also use sirens as they move along the city streets. It’s as if they are declaring, move aside, make way, we own this country! 

It doesn’t look as if there is anyone in charge of the streets. Death on the roads has become an everyday occurrence and there doesn’t seem to be anyone to look into the matter. 

Perhaps there is someone. We see him on TV on government holidays, standing at the street corners, checking the fitness of CNG-run auto-rickshaws, buses and trucks. He regularly announces that a national drive is on. He is also seen on the TV screen announcing that another span of Padma Bridge has been put in place. He has another grave responsibility and that is to preach to BNP. BNP leaders seem to have taken his advice and perhaps will be converted into a good party eventually! 

But what about noise pollution? Who will staunch the sirens? How many more will have to give their lives on the highways? 

And now who is this scoundrel who has beaten Bangladesh? It’s Burundi, a small country in central Africa, around 30,000 sq km in area. It became independent in 1962. It’s a bit like us, alternating between four-year stints of authoritarian rule, violence, coups and counter coups, martial law, etc. Nkurunziza has been elected their president for the third consecutive time and is keeping up the country’s development. It has been now ranked by a US-based environmental agency as the world’s environmentally worst nation, at number 180 on the list. 

Bangladesh is ranked 179. We have been defeated by Burundi, or else we could have become environmentally the world’s worst nation. 

Dhaka is one of the most polluted cities in the world. It has been heard that several foreign diplomatic missions in the country are not getting people to fill several posts as they do not want to come to Dhaka, no matter how high the salary. They are like my relative who has fled. 

We are fed up with rhetoric about development. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone to do anything about it. 

According to a report on 12 February in Prothom Alo, it took the environment minister and deputy minister a full month to eventually visit the department of environment. 

Everything is disintegrating all around us. We are only watching and lamenting. But nothing is being done.

* Shahdeen Malik is a lawyer of the Supreme Court and teaches law at Asia Pacific University. This piece appeared in Bangla in the print version of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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