DHAKA: Authorities in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, one of the world’s most polluted cities, have launched a purge on hundreds of illegal brick kilns identified as a major source of toxic air.
However, the clampdown by officials from the Department of Environment could result in hundreds of thousands of factory workers losing their jobs.
The move, announced on Thursday, followed a High Court ruling earlier in the week giving authorities two weeks to close down a number of brick kilns operating illegal in Dhaka.
According to the US-based Air Quality Index (AQI) project, the Bangladeshi capital’s air was the worst in the world for two consecutive days last week, figures which prompted calls from environmentalists for urgent action to tackle the problem.
Rubina Ferdousi, director of monitoring and enforcement at the Department of Environment, told Arab News: “We have targeted all illegal brick kilns in five districts — Gazipur, Manikgonj, Savar, Munshigonj and Narayangonj — surrounding Dhaka. We will continue this drive throughout the year. In 15 days, we will submit a report to the court.”
Industry stakeholders have slammed the decision, arguing that under newly revised regulations many brick kilns have been declared illegal.
According to the Brick Manufacturing and Brick Kiln Establishment (Control) Act of 2013, which was revised this year, the establishment of such operations is prohibited in residential, protected, commercial and agricultural areas, and is also banned in forests, wetlands and ecologically critical areas.
Violating the law is a criminal offense carrying a maximum prison sentence of five years and/or a fine of up to $6,000.
Abu Bakar, secretary general of the Bangladesh Brick Manufacturing Owners Association (BBMOA), told Arab News that the parameter for suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the air, specified in the revised law, should be increased to 400.
“Otherwise, most of our brick kilns will have to shut down,” he said.
He said there were about 800 operating in the vicinity of Dhaka. Data from the Department of Environment indicated that only 487 of them were legal.
But Salman Chowdhury, assistant director for enforcement at the Department of Environment, said that the SPM in the air had to be below 200 in order to be considered safe for humans.
Brick kilns in Bangladesh are usually coal-fired, emitting huge amounts of carbon dioxide and particulate matter. They operate during the dry season from November through April.
Sharif Jamil, secretary-general of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), the country’s top environmental organization, told Arab News that the kilns contributed to half of Dhaka’s air pollution and also damaged soil, causing irreparable losses to agriculture.
“A good thing is that this year our government decided to replace traditional bricks with building blocks in all government constructions. Demand for bricks will gradually decrease,” he said.
While the government clampdown on kilns has been welcomed by environmentalists, it could jeopardize the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Dhaka residents.
Around 250 full-time workers are needed to run a brick factory. “We hire them on a contract basis and the remuneration depends on their productivity. The workers’ monthly wages vary from $200 to $300,” Bakar added.
Workers fear the program of closures is being implemented without a strategy to help them find alternative employment.
“I only know how to make bricks,” said Abu Alam, 37, a worker at a factory in Savar district. Another kiln employee, Miraj Ahmed, 46, said he had seven family members to provide for. “I need to survive, but now I am not sure what to do,” he said.