The polluters ‘manage’ the entire systemby Shahidul Islam Chowdhury
and try to ‘influence’ decisions of the court, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), said in an exclusive interview with New Age on Wednesday. She was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award this year by the Manila-based Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for her ‘uncompromising courage’ and ‘impassioned leadership’ to uphold people’s right to a good environment in Bangladesh
You are a lawyer by training, but you have chosen environment, instead of conventional legal profession as your field of work. Why?
It was a ‘conscious decision’ from my part to not to go for conventional legal service. I could have maintained a chamber where clients could come and offer me fees for service. I could have become a corporate lawyer or a conventional criminal lawyer. But I thought that this path is not perfect for me. That’s why I have decided to pursue a way through which I can offer ‘good services’ of law to the people.
It is also not fully true that we have joined BELA because of our love for environment. The then leadership of the organization successfully motivated us to pursue for ‘progressive interpretations’ of law, for lessening ‘fearsome’ aspects of law among the common people and bringing the court at their doorstep, or vice versa. I am here today for these reasons.
Do you think that environmental movement has become more difficult with the rise of interest groups?
The interest groups, both public and private, are becoming much more organized nowadays. They demonstrate force - physical, monetary, legal and otherwise - if we develop legal resistance against their unlawful acts. In the past, people had some idea about how influential these vested interest groups were. But now people can see how they manage the entire system, how they bribe the government machinery, how they try to influence a decision of the court, and how they try to grip the media as well.
It is a constitutional obligation of the government to protect the environment. But it is evident that the government machinery hardly complies with the responsibility. What is your take on government’s reluctance to comply?
In most of the cases, genuine people’s perspective are absent in the efforts of the government to enforce laws. Our fight is, in fact, to ensure people’s interests through enforcement of laws in general, and environmental laws in particular, by government machinery. For these reasons, we hold the government offices primarily responsible for lack in enforcement of laws. You would see that in legal battles, we make the government offices primary respondents for their lacking in enforcement of laws. The private companies, who, in most of the cases, are violators of the law, generally remain the lower tier of the respondents. We do this because otherwise the government agencies, who are supposed to be there to enforce the law, somehow ‘manage’ to escape their duties. We have seen how the owner of a big private real estate company openly challenged the state minister regarding housing for about three years, because of a decision he made against the interest of the company. Unfortunately, we had also seen how the minister instructed the offices concerned to find ways to give a legal cover to illegal acts of the company! A minister cannot behave like that.
There are loopholes in the laws and rules regulating the environmental issues. Are the loopholes maintained unconsciously, or kept deliberately?
I am not worried about the loopholes in the law, even if they are willful.
One of the major problems is that almost everything in the government, no matter which party rules it, has become, somehow, ‘managed’. We, however, believe that quality application of laws can be ensured by giving positive interpretation to them.
The court, the administration and the police are generally involved in the process to enforce the laws.
We can find them on board to protect the environment if we can positively motivate them for the cause. For example, there was no rule on ship breaking. But the court, on its own, has ordered the government to prepare rules on ship breaking.
The other agencies can take a positive note from this gesture of the court.
What big challenges do you foresee in the struggle for healthy environment?
I think, developing an all out social movement has become much necessary as people’s right to live in a good environment have been becoming clearer in the last couple of years. The political forces are not enthusiastic about these issues—encroachment of real states into the flood plains and water bodies, hill cutting, shrimp farming in brackish water for richer section of the society, industrial pollutions, hazardous ship breaking, etc. A good number of media houses, certainly with some exceptions, make ‘subjective’ decisions as violators pay through advertisements.
There is no way but to forge a mass movement by developing public opinion for protecting the environment.
The NGOs are generally involved in organizing events to forge people’s opinion. What limitations do you see in their policies and programmes?
The NGOs do not enjoy any power. A major problem is that most of the NGOs are dependent on foreign (and government) funds to run their activities. They need to go through certain government procedures to avail funds.
The government has, however, kept the NGOs under strong control through the NGO Affairs Bureau and other bureaucratic procedures ‘in the name of upholding public interests’.
The government’s definition of ‘public interest’ is, however, much different from our definition of ‘public interest.’
I believe the NGOs could play a greater role if they could become self-reliant and free from fund-stings.
How do you see the role of the people when the government tries to clip influence of the NGOs?
There is a sense of fatigue among the people regarding a movement for protecting the environment. They have doubt if the movement against hazardous ship breaking, encroachment into the nature, industrial pollution would be successful. Would anything really happen, how would something happen, they ask.
People, in fact, believe in visible successes. They hardly subscribe to rhetoric.
Do you see any change in the attitudes of the private business interests?
They were foolhardy in the past. Now they try to put on a disguise. The REHAB at times issues statements subscribing to our positions on certain things. The BGMEA hardly reacts in a bad way when demands are put forwarded to remove its headquarters erected on Hatirjheel. The owners of the tanneries maintain silence.
This is because they know that the government is with them as it was in the past, irrespective of partisan identity.
We can take relocation of tanneries as an example. Across the world, the polluters pay for getting rid of pollution. But in the case of tanneries, the government has been spending public money for relocation of the factories! Here, people are paying! The chances of relocating tanneries in near future still appear to be thin.
How do you see the role of the media?
Mixed. I find them 75 per cent positive.
We get all out support from the media in the cases of encroachment into rivers and water bodies. But when the question of involvement of big housing companies comes, the media behaves otherwise, keeping advertisement in consideration.
Another problem that we faced intimidation with was (a section of) corporate media. There was direct threat against us.
It is true that we could not come to this stage without support from the mainstream media. I am, however, worried about the invasion of corporate media.
You were awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award this year. Would it help in any way to reshape your way of working on giving progressive interpretation of laws?
BELA, since its beginning, has been a passion for us. We, at this stage, would not be able to win against all big housing companies involved in encroaching flood flow zones. We, however, can certainly win the battle with some companies violating laws. We can make some rivers free from pollution. We can bring back greens in certain areas.
The point that I am trying to make is we can set some examples to be followed by others. We can mobilize people to protect their environment by themselves.
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