‘We are keeping the people’s conscience awake, keeping the issues alive’
The Taiwan-based Tang Foundation recently awarded the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) the Tang Foundation Prize in recognition of its efforts to further the rule of law. Executive director of BELA, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, in an interview to South Asian Monitor’s Shafiq Rahman, speaks about risks, realities and achievements of law-related movements in Bangladesh and South Asia.
South Asian Monitor (SAM): Your and BELA have previously received the Magsaysay award and several other commendations. Can you tell us about the Tang prize which BELA recently received?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan (SRH): The prize has been awarded to BELA in recognition of our research and efforts to uphold the rule of law and our public interest litigations.
SAM: So how far has the rule of law been established in Bangladesh, in your opinion?
SRH: When a prize is awarded, it means you have managed to achieve something in challenging circumstances. Tang Foundation felt that the rule of law was on a shaky footing in Bangladesh and that the public had very little faith in many of the government’s decisions. In other words, the prize was not awarded because the rule of law was in a good shape in Bangladesh. On the contrary, the prize was given because this organization has been working relentlessly and sincerely to establish the rule of law.
SAM: Has BELA been able to work independently?
SRH: Whatever work we do, we have been able to do independently. However, had there been democracy in the true sense in this country, if there had been an effective opposition, a balance of power, press freedom, freedom of expression in the social media, then such work would be much more extensive and far reaching.
In our work we often have to fight against vested interests or speak out against certain decisions of the government. But it is getting more and more difficult to express views against the ‘development’ narrative of the government.
We are often gripped by situations where there simply is no resolution. For example, the Rampal power plant. Force has been used to suppress our views. When the people rallied against this controversial project, the police launched an attack on the rally and even broke Professor Anu Muhammed’s leg. So there obviously is a wide gap between having independence and the state’s responsibility to ensure that independence. I would say that to a large extent, the state is not carrying out its responsibility to ensure people’s independence.
SAM: BELA has been working since 1992. The organization has a wide scope of work - from rights and the constitution to land grabbing and pollution. How much impact have these law-related movements had in Bangladesh?
SRH: It varies. You cannot separate the environmental movement from the country’s general political order. When we started out, that decade was a very encouraging one. We would go to court and the court would issue very favorable orders. The judges and the lawyers would all be trying to achieve something good.
Democracy should have been consolidated in the next phase, but instead, it became an exercise of a two-thirds and three-fourths majority. So whichever party was in power, it would try to exert its influence on every sector, the judiciary, the police and the commissions. So the second phase was challenging on two heads – one was the democratic climate undergoing a change, and the other was that the polluters were more organized and so we could not tackle them as easily as before.
These offenders stepped up their liaison with the government and the government is many respects went under their control. So our fight against them was no longer restricted to a struggle for the rule of law. Our personal security and institutional security were under threat.
In the third phase we see the government and the corporations have become one and the same. We cannot discern any difference. There is excessive political interference in each and every institution. The institutions are unable to function independently. This phase has become extremely challenging for us. We are extremely insecure, both on a personal level and on an institutional level.
The opponents join forces with a certain agency and our personal security is at risk. Also, the government enacts laws to control the NGOs in such a manner that licenses are cancelled, boards are cancelled and so on. Journalists are being arrested for exercising their freedom of expression. People are being arrested for expressing their views on the social media. Fourteen-year-olds, university teachers, no one is being spared. So we have all sorts of experiences in different phases.
SAM: Wherein lies BELA’s success? You are still fighting against the ship-breaking industry, the pollution of the river Buriganga. Your movement continues but so does pollution. Why can’t this be brought under control?
SRH: If we stop our work the situation would simply go from bad to worse. Do you know why? Because we are keeping the people’s conscience awake, keeping the issues alive in the hope of change one day. Despite such adverse circumstances, we have managed to stop several housing projects, we have managed to ensure compensation for workers.
The court ordered the demolition of the BGMEA building. We did not have the power to demolish the building and that is not our work either. As lawyers what we did was point out that power was abused in constructing the building, that the law had been violated. We took the initiative that it be declared illegal. The court carried out its responsibility in declaring it illegal and ordering its demolition. But if the political government takes the economic equation of BGMEA into their consideration and delays the matter, what can we do?
I would say that our success lies in the fact that we are surviving in extreme adverse conditions. Our success lies in our strength and courage to represent people’s interests in the court system, in creating many environmental movements all over the country.If we did not go to court, that trust in us perhaps would have vanished. The people have understood that the issue of environment must be tackled. It is a matter of existence. This is also a part of our success.
SAM: Along with BELA, Lebanon’s The Legal Agenda and Colombia’s Dejusticia also received the Tang award this time. How relevant or effective do you think such law-related movements are in the South Asian context. Even the issue of rights to water is still unresolved.
SRH: I think such movements are extremely relevant in South Asia. Each and every country of the region is at the bottom of the environmental performance index. It is the same about the corruption index, the press freedom index. The rule of law is essential.
Look at the problems in South Asia at the moment. India has problems with Nepal. India has problems with China. There are massive governance problems here which have developed over the years. We always maintained that, if the governments had listened to the voice of civil society, things would not have gone so far. The Indian government and the Pakistan government do not talk to each other, but civil society members of India and Pakistan have great communication. If their voices were heeded at a state level, India’s rivers would not be dying today. Bangladesh’s rivers would not be dying.
We opposed the Farakka barrage because Bangladesh’s rivers would die. Rivers are now dying in India too. India is also facing floods. We want the rivers of all countries to survive. We talk about protecting the eco-system. The movements we carry out have an inherent global appeal.
Bangladesh’s civil society protested against the Tipaimukh dam and then India’s civil society also protested against it, saying that the dam would destroy the forest areas of the region. As a result, the Indian government backtracked from the project. So we speak a common language. We follow the language of Nature.
We Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Indians are also together in the movement against the ship breaking industry because South Asia cannot be dumping ground for developed countries.
However, certain issues like the Rampal power plant have become highly political. That project is a negligible investment for India, the amount of power to be generated there is nothing that Bangladesh can’t do without or that will make a dent in India’s power system. The entire matter seems to be entirely political.
SAM: Is there any South Asian umbrella or platform for such legal movements. Is there need for such a platform?
SRH: Let me explain by saying that the political integration of South Asia cannot be viewed on the same level as that of the European Union. Even when we talk about water here, there is no South Asian river. There are rivers shared by Nepal, India and us. There are rivers shared by India, China and us. There are rivers shared by India and Pakistan. When we want to discuss these as multilateral issues or trilateral issues, India insists that these are bilateral issues, not South Asian issues.
There certainly are South Asian platforms working on human rights, human trafficking and so on. But there is no political integration. Democracy is shaky in almost all the countries. Even India’s democracy is now being questioned. Even so, there is need for a platform, but the strength of it can only be utilized if there is political integration first.
SAM: There may be many changes in the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. Do you see the need of environmental policy reforms in the emerging world order?
SRH: Covid should certainly bring about psychological changes in people’s mindsets. For the first time we are hearing people saying that not an inch of land will remain uncultivated. Before Covid all we heard was the need for more and more economic zones. Various countries were to come and invest in Bangladesh to set up their industries. In other words, we were preparing to become the hub of pollution. All the cropland was to be handed over to the economic zones. But after the outbreak of Covid, the question arose, how will the people be fed? That is why directives have come to cultivate as much as possible. Now we see deputy commissioners in the field harvesting crops, MPs are cutting paddy. That was not how things were.
This experience indicates that our primary investments must be in agriculture, health and education. There was no need for our primary investment to be in Metrorail. We could have improved our bus service. Unless the government moves away from imposed development, it will be clear that Covid has taught the government nothing.
Covid has been a lesson to us, but whether we learn from it or not depends on the political education of the country. However, even if States do not want to change policies or development models, the Covid situation will give social movements like ours the clout and credibility to negotiate with the government.