Clean air also a human right: Experts

With Dhaka battling every day with toxic air, environmental and rights activists think the ‘ineptitude’ of the authorities concerned to protect people from exposure to ‘hazardous’ and ‘unhealthy’ air is a serious violation of human rights. According to the United Nations clean air is a human right.

In a message on World Environment Day in 2019, UN’s special representative on human rights and the environment David Boyd said the failure of governments across the world to ensure their citizens breathe clean air is a “violation of the rights to life, health and wellbeing”. Chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Ain O Salish Kendra executive director Sheepa Hafiza and general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan (Bapa) Dr Abdul Matin said the air has become very harmful due to discharge of dust from unplanned construction works, metro-rail project, road repair, installation of utility lines, smoke from vehicles and brick kilns.

They said the two newly-elected Dhaka city mayors should take effective action plans urgently to ensure clean and healthy air for the city dwellers, leaving up to their election promises. In Air Quality Index (AQI), an index for reporting daily air quality, Dhaka has regularly ranked among the top five worst cities since the beginning of the dry season, highlighting its ‘unhealthy’ and ‘poor air quality’.

On Monday morning, the city topped the list with an AQI score of 306 at 0810am. The air was classified as ‘hazardous’. Dhaka also ranked the worst in the AQI for at least five days in this month. Rizwana Hasan said living in a healthy environment is the human and constitutional rights of people, but the authorities concerned are hardly concerned at the violation of such rights.

She said there is no improvement in Dhaka’s air quality only for lack of the government’s sincerity and lack of its political commitment and proper action plans. Rizwana said air pollution in the city can be drastically improved if the government takes a short-term and effective plan and properly execute it.

She said every construction farm usually signs an agreement with the government that it must implement the development project without harming the environment, but most companies breach the deal for lack of monitoring and punitive action. The noted environmentalist said the government must force construction farms to implement their projects without polluting the environment maintaining the building code. “They must cover the construction sites and keep the materials under cover. They will have to spry water regularly so that dust doesn’t originate from their sites.”

Besides, she said, the government must remove the brick kilns from the surrounding areas of the city and withdraw unfit vehicles from the streets. She said two newly-elected mayors should take plans as per the directives given by the High Court on January 13 this year to check the pollution.

“We’ve long been talking about the issue and the court is also giving various guidelines, but the government is not taking the issue seriously,” Rizwana added. Sheepa Hafiza said it is the responsibility of the government to ensure a healthy, habitable and safe environment for its citizens, but it is regrettable that Dhaka has become a least liveable city only because of manmade pollution.

“I can’t understand as to how the government allows a small number of people to pollute the environment, violating the human rights of millions of people,” she said. The right activists urged the government to take the environment pollution issue seriously from the people’s human rights aspect and take action against those responsible for it.

“It’s unbelievable that only a few construction farms, brick kilns, unfit vehicles and land grabbers and industrialists are destroying the environment, but the government can’t take action against them. I think the government can’t understand the damage done to people because of pollution. They should act properly,” she observed.

She also focused on making people aware of their rights to fresh air and healthy environment so that they can mount pressure on the authorities concerned to realise their rights. Dr Abdul Matin said it seems Dhaka city has become a big ‘pollution pocket’ as the authorities concerned could not yet come up with any comprehensive guideline to overcome the problem.

Matin also a physician said city dwellers are seriously suffering from various diseases, mainly the respiratory ones, for the serious dust pollution. “It’s surely a serious violation of human rights.” He observed that air pollution originating from the construction work-related processes like concrete crushing, cement-batching and road stone plants, is destroying the environment and clean air, contributing to the rapid rise in lung diseases.

“We, the environmentalists, have failed to encourage government to protect Dhaka from pollution. I think the human rights activists should now be vocal about the issue as people’s rights to live in a healthy and safe environment is being violated,” Matin observed. Dr Imrul Haque of ENT department at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University said heavy exposure to air polluting particles, including cement and sand and dust can result in severe health risks including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections, disorder in urinary tract, heart problems and shorten life expectancy.

He also said the number of patients suffering from these diseases and cold and cough problems have increased in the city due to the growing dust pollution.