Who Will Save the Sundarbans?

20 years ago, people could not have imagined that there will be only 11.2% forest left in Bangladesh, officially; that hundreds of plant and animal species will become extinct; that there will be only 100 tigers left in the Sundarbans, if not less. The more developed we are becoming as a nation, the more we are damaging our environment and the government is now encouraging such actions.

The National Environmental Committee, which provides policy guidelines and directives to ensure environment friendly development activities with the head of the government as its chairperson, has recently decided to legalize around 150 industrial factories in five districts around the Sundarbans. They have also decided to renew clearances of 118 factories that received primary clearance in 2015 and give approval to 16 new factories to operate in the very region. Some of these factories are LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) bottling plants or included in the ‘red category’, which create extreme pollution.

Ironically, in 1999, the Ministry of Environment and Forests of Bangladesh had declared 10 km area surrounding the Sundarbans as ecologically critical area (ECA) under section 5 of the Environment Conservation Act and it was not allowed for any polluting industries to operate in the ECA. That is until now.

If the government chooses to carry out the committee’s decision, they will soon permit hundreds of industrial factories to function in the ECAs of the Sundarbans. What will happen next if it becomes legally acceptable to pollute and damage the little amount of forest that we have left?

Broadly there are three different types of natural forests in Bangladesh – tropical evergreen or semi-evergreen hill forests in the Chittagong Hill Tracks and other hilly regions across the country, sal forests in the central plain regions and the mangrove forests, mainly in the Sundarbans. The sal forests have almost disappeared and the hill forests are also gravely damaged by human actions. Now the relatively less affected mangrove forest is facing similar threats and actions that are supported by the government itself.

Modhupur sal forest destruction in the name of social forestry

Reportedly, poachers are now using deer corpses covered in a type of insecticide called ‘Furadan’ to kill Royal Bengal Tigers in the Sundarbans. The number of tigers in the mangroves of Bangladesh has already reduced by half in the last 10 years (from 200 to only 100 tigers but most likely even less). On top of the already extinct species, many other species of animals, birds, and plants in the Sundarbans are on the verge of extinction. In this critical situation, what could possibly be the outcome other than a catastrophic one if hundreds of factories are encouraged to operate around the Sundarbans?

Then there are the controversies regarding the infamous Rampal Power Plant.

The Foreign Ministry of the Bangladesh government announced on July 7, 2017 that UNESCO has withdrawn their objections against Rampal Power Plant and changed their decision to remove the Sundarbans from the world heritage list if the plant is built.

However, the final report of the 41th session of UNESCO in Poland was published on July 30, 2017, which clearly stated that UNESCO has requested the government to NOT build any large-scale industrial infrastructure in the region without completion of a proper Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). And they PARTICULARY requested the government to carry out a SEA on the impacts of Rampal Power Plant.

Despite the pathetic efforts of the authorities to cover up this information, it is now clear to all that UNESCO recommended the government to not build any factory, including the Rampal Power Plant, near the Sundarbans before proper environmental assessment. However, the authorities are determined to not move away from their position even in the face of national and international criticism. Whatever may be the reasons behind this unfortunate attitude, the establishment of Rampal Power Plant will mark a grimmer chapter for our country’s already dire environmental condition.

sundarban-threat_02

No one is arguing the fact that the country needs to become more developed, which requires solving the problem of energy shortage. But shouldn’t the largest power plant of the country be built in a location that will not generate electricity at the cost of our most important natural heritage? Do we really need to choose between the two? It is befuddling to think that this is even happening.

The power plant will supposedly have the necessary technologies to reduce air, water and noise pollution. Will it? Why are most of the national and international environmentalists not convinced that this will be the case? In order to cause minimum pollution, the factories will need to strictly follow the terms and conditions that come with the approval. Will they?

These questions need to be answered. At the very least, a globally-accepted environmental assessment needs to be carried out before moving forward with the decisions. Otherwise, why should anyone believe such claims to be true, especially considering the recent unfolding of embarrassing events?

It is simply undeniable that a giant coal-based power plant and hundreds of other factories around the Sundarbans will cause fatal and irreversible damages to the habitat of many animal and plant species that are already extremely vulnerable.

Instead of taking the long overdue steps to conserve the Sundarbans, the government is building a giant power plant themselves and allowing other factories be legally functional in the very forest area they are supposed to protect. No matter whatever economic and political advantages they are to gain from this, the government needs to choose saving the Sundarbans over other options if they want the peoples’ support. Otherwise, this may lead to catastrophic events that will harm everyone involved.

Will we lose this majestic creature from Bangladesh forever?

*All the images were collected from different online sources.

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A Joke

I started my morning reading the Prothom Alo – the most widely circulated newspaper of Bangladesh. The headline says: “Opportunities of employment has decreased: Recent BBS workforce survey.” No big shock there. But it might make you think twice if you look at the findings in detail. Currently there are 2.6 million people unemployed in Bangladesh. More alarmingly, employment rate is highest among the most educated – 9 in every 100 undergraduates or post graduates are unemployed. Ironically, only 2.2% of the uneducated are sitting at home. The article actually says that in Bangladesh, you have better luck finding a job if you are illiterate!

And it makes sense. I see this every day around me. Most of the people I know who are currently unemployed (including myself), are either Master’s or Bachelor’s degree holders. Whereas those who are from less affluent families, have received no or very little education in their lives, are all earning money; no matter how little the amount is. The reason for this is high expectation.

I, myself, is an apt example of this crisis in Bangladesh. I started to work full-time the next day of my last exam of undergraduate studies. The job did not pay much. I knew nothing about the job market or work environment. All I wanted was to gain experiences. I worked as an intern for six months and it paid almost nothing. Eventually I got better opportunities and started to earn more. For various reasons, I decided to enroll in a Master’s program. I ended up quitting my job because I couldn’t handle both work and studying at the same time (many others can but I am lethargic). I also began to look for opportunities of further higher education in a European country. Anyone who has ever applied for higher education abroad from a developing country knows how time-consuming and depressing it can get (or maybe it’s just me). I got accepted to a university but with no scholarship. So I couldn’t go.

Then began my search for a job here in Dhaka. But unlike last time, I was not willing to start from scratch all over again. I cannot work as a lowly intern again! I cannot work just anywhere! I am a highly educated person now for heaven’s sake! I want to work in a specific sector related to my field of study and interest. And this is the problem. This is the problem that has been holding back 9% of the highly educated people. And I cannot blame them. I think the same way. But I can also see it was a wrong decision to only pursue higher education, especially when I focused more on it than trying to find ways to get a new job.

And the funny part is this figure of 9% unemployed rate among the highly educated is what BBS (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics) says . The real percentage ought to be much, much higher (anyone who is aware of the ‘accuracy’ of BBS data knows this). People in Bangladesh just accept it as a fact that if you have the money to pay for it, then you must get a higher degree, at least a Master’s degree. It is a social norm here. We don’t even stop to think and ask ourselves: do I really need this degree? We continue fooling ourselves thinking this degree will ensure a better future. In reality, what really matter are networking, proper connections and specific skills that one should have acquired.

This social norm as well as this type of unemployment scenario are partly the creation of the absurd education system of the country. It forces us to be confined within the boundaries of text books with mostly bad teachers. It teaches us to conform to the system, to follow rules, to think within the box. It teaches us how to be good kamlas. It teaches us nothing about how to deal with real life and how to improve networking skills. It doesn’t encourage us to be innovators and entrepreneurs. The enrollment rate is very high in primary level education in Bangladesh, which the government shows off to the world as a huge achievement of theirs. They have managed to increase the quantity of education, not its quality.

Thus we end up thinking, ok, so I just have to pay lakhs of taka then one day it’ll pay off. But does it for everyone? The way we race with extreme competitions to reach that finish line seems like a never-ending marathon. I am fully aware that finding a job is not the only point of education. But the system needs to be changed in a way that actually helps  people to build their careers.