The India Supreme Court on 25 November, referring to Delhi’s air pollution, said that it would be better to kill off everyone in a bomb explosion than letting them suffer in this manner. Ironically, Dhaka was the city with the worst air pollution on that very day, Delhi was the fourth.
Dhaka has been fluctuating between first and second place among cities with the highest air pollution over the past few months. According to reports, 100 per cent of the people in the country live in this air pollution. In 2017, a total of 125,000 people died of air pollution (The State of Global Air, 2019). Over 100,000 people could not survive this toxic city. Who is responsible? How did this city become the world’s most polluted city? Why will the air of a city have 200 times higher cadmium presence than normal? Why will it have double the permissible lead level? Over three times chromium? Why will the harmful PM 2-5 be 10 times higher than the danger level?
Our ministers say Bangladesh will be like Canada, like Singapore. Does the air of Canada and Singapore have 200 times more cadmium in the air than normal?
Half of Dhaka’s air pollution is caused by the brick kilns. The rest is caused by the black smoke emitted from trucks, buses, mills and factories, by the construction industry and mushrooming mega development. What is the alternative to brick kilns? What is the alternative to black smoke? What is the alternative to buildings that don’t comply with the building code? Apparently there are no alternatives.
In redundant development models, cities and ports would sprout up at the cost of human lives. But our ministers’ role models are Singapore, Las Vegas. In the era of solar energy, energy from waste, local industrialisation, sustainable development and, above all, in this ‘golden age’ of ‘digital’ Bangladesh, do such redundant development ideas suit them?
The mega ‘development’ in the country is being carried out without any sort of coordination. Our capital is a garbage dump unfit for living. Everything is crumbling, but there is no sign of decentralisation. There is a shortage of drinking water around the year. The water level has dropped below 200 ft. One building is coming up against the other. Around 67 per cent of the buildings do not comply with the building code. Fire engines cannot even come near the buildings. Around 70 per cent of the gas pipelines have crossed the expiry date. The average speed of traffic has gradually slowed to just 7 km per hour.
The city has no green spaces, no clean canals, no properly functioning drains, no safe fire exists or proper zebra crossings. The air is highly unhealthy. Meanwhile children, armed with the schoolbags, go to school through all this. Construction workers toil in this air, as do rickshaw-pullers, traffic police, CNG drivers, bus helpers and thousands of people thronging to their offices. And still, relentless, truckloads of bricks are brought into everyday to meet the demands of this dying metropolis.
All these bricks, the buildings jostling together without following the code, the dangerous particulate matter floating around in the air, all contribute to our grand GDP. Brick kilns are 1 per cent of our GDP. The construction industry is 14 per cent of our GDP. And 14 to 15 per cent of the GDP means the poisonous carbon monoxide in the city’s air, the thousands of brick factory workers suffering from asthma. In exchange of this 15 per cent of the GDP, people’s life expectancy has gone down by almost one and a half years and the tender lungs of one-fourth of the capital city’s children are damaged.
GDP comes at a high cost in this land of development.
Diseases have increased in Dhaka. There has been an increase in asthma, heart ailments, heart failure, respiratory infection, pneumonia, bronchitis, and diabetes and lung cancer. Why are these diseases on a steady rise?
The market for medicines has crossed Tk 250 billion in the country with the pharmaceutical industry making up almost 2 per cent of the GDP. Sickness has increased in the country, antibiotic intake has increased, the sale of inhalers and masks has increased, and pharmacies have sprouted up all over. The presence of sulphur dioxide has increased in the air, cadmium in the dust and lead in the water.
There are hospitals in every nook and corner of the city. Physicians have stepped up their practice in private chambers. There are diagnostic centres everywhere. Does this booming business due to illnesses, skin diseases, asthma and cancer bode well? Research indicates that the most deaths in the capital city are due to heart ailments. And every year 1.5 million people are diagnosed with cancer. (WHO, 2018)
Why are these deadly diseases spreading in this land of development? Carry out an autopsy in the dead people, check the hearts and lungs of the living. You will then find an intractable link with this ‘mega’ development.
Billionaires are increasing in Bangladesh. Per capita income has increased. And yet 6 million people of the country every year are pushed into poverty due to medical costs. (icddrb,b 2014). Research of the health ministry (2015) shows Bangladesh has the highest cost for treatment of medical patients in South and Southeast Asia.
There is so much talk about the increase in per capita income. But does anyone bother about the increase in sulphur dioxide per head, the medical treatment expenditure per head, the doubling of medical costs in a matter of eight years?
The court gave a ruling about reducing air pollution, but is anything done about it? Is there any additional allocation to the budget to reduce medical costs? On the contrary, our budget for public health is near the bottom (only 0.8 per cent) among Asian countries. The health budget (in proportion to the GDP) is higher than ours in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and even Afghanistan! People sell their land, their jewellery and borrow money to meet their high medical costs. This increases economic translations in the country too. And this pushes up the GDP.
But do all these diseased hearts, damaged lungs, ailing kidneys, incessant coughs, burning eyes, chronic headaches, and skin diseases look good for a ‘digital’ nation? Can you sell your child’s little lungs and heart to fulfil the desire to become Las Vegas and up your GDP by 2 per cent?
We were supposed to have a smart city. There were to be green spaces and a flowing river by the city. There was to be an efficient healthcare system, an ample number of nurses. The air was to be clear as that of Canada, with clean water flowing from the taps. There was to be mass transport, a nationwide railway network, bicycle lanes.
There was to be industrialisation at the local level, hundreds of jute mills, cold storage for rice, vegetables and potatoes. There was to be wind turbines along the coast, solar energy, energy from waste, plastic recycling. There would be organic farms in the villages. Fines would be imposed if any industrial chemicals seeped into the paddy fields, vegetable fields.
Instead we are signing deals for 29 coal-fired power plants. We have unchecked brick kilns and industrial waste. The dyeing industry has destroyed crop land. Every day the river Padma carries 73,000 tonnes of plastic into the Bay of Bengal. We have formalin in our food, adulterated food, detergent instead of milk and antibiotics in beef.
We have a disease-ridden ailing nation, with one nurse for every 10,000 persons, one hospital bed per 1000 persons, with hundreds of rickshaw-pullers and construction works coughing to death.
Air pollution diseases alone cause the death of 123,000 people in Bangladesh to die every year. Unimaginable! Will their epitaphs speak of how they have been sacrificed for the development of the ‘role model’ country?
What next? Will fresh air be bottled and sold as in India? Sold by weight? That will certainly be yet another ‘business model’. A few more meals for the GDP.
That is how in the land of development people die, the GDP increases. The GDP increases, people die.
* Maha Mirza is a researcher of development economy. This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir