People, who live, work or visit Dhaka, or for that matter in any major metropolis in Bangladesh, are not actually gasping for breath in rarefied atmosphere. But neither are they blessed with pristine air that invigorates and enlivens the spirit. On the contrary, they are condemned to breathe polluted air that takes a heavy toll of their lives surreptitiously. According to an estimate, 0. 75 million people die annually because of air pollution in the capital city. A major section of the people living or visiting Dhaka for a period of time incurs non-communicable diseases. Ironically, most of them reportedly belong to the wealthy and affluent class.
Tragic as the untimely death of so many otherwise healthy people is, the economic loss to the nation is no less alarming. According to the same source, the economy suffers a loss of more than 4 per cent of GDP every year because of pollution related causes.
The source of the above information is a report of World Bank released in December last. The report captioned ' Breathing heavy: New evidence on air pollution and health in Bangladesh' was based on a survey of 12,250 respondents from four areas in Dhaka and Sylhet. The respondents to the survey covered extreme poor, poor, middle class, rich and super rich. According to the findings of the survey, 18 per cent of the super rich who responded, suffer from serious coughing, while 5 per cent of them have chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) and 21 per cent have opthalmalogical complications, Other non- communicable diseases like allergy, diabetes, heart complications have the highest incidence among the super rich with the extreme poor, poor and middle class having successive decreasing incidences. For both short term and non-communicable diseases, the pattern of incidence, as found in the survey, indicates an increasing scale of magnitude according to income status.
The survey found that the factors contributing to air pollution that account for the short term and non- communicable diseases in the survey areas in Dhaka and Sylhet are: (a) carbon emissions from mechanical vehicles, (b) black smoke from brick kilns, and (c) construction works in dry seasons that throw up dust. All these account for air pollution and dust in the air in varying degrees that people breathe. According to the estimate made by the survey, the degree of air pollution caused by traffic congestion and construction works is 150 per cent more than the standard air quality estimated by the World Health organisation. The World Bank has concluded, on the basis of the survey, that air pollution has deteriorated alarmingly in recent years, surpassing past records. In 2019, the second most risk factor for deaths and physical disability was air pollution. In that year 80,000 (eighty) thousand individuals died due to air pollution alone, the report has said.
According to a Bengali daily (Bonik Barta, January 14, 2023), the World Bank researchers, who conducted the survey, followed the same classification of the respondents according to income and wealth as the one used by the National Population Research and Training (NIPORT) Institute for their population and health survey. The classification of the respondents into five income and wealth groups is unexceptionable as any realistic socio-economic survey has to focus on the impact of a problem on various income groups. But the rationale for the selection of Sylhet, instead of Chittagong or Khulna, the second and third most populous urban areas in the country, is anything but comprehensible. If the focus of the survey is air pollution and major contributing factors identified are traffic congestion and density of mechanical vehicles plying in urban areas, then the selection of the survey areas excluding more urbanised and populous cities does not appear sensible. Absence of what needs to be done about the major cause of air pollution (vehicular traffic) in densely populated urban conglomerates like Dhaka makes the report a lame duck. It is long on impacts of pollution on classified groups and short on what needs to be done.
What is more disconcerting is that the survey finding shows the rich and super rich being more disadvantaged and vulnerable than the extreme poor, poor and the middle class respondents. Whatever the method used may have been, the findings regarding vulnerabilities to air pollution according to income and wealth ranking flies in the face of common sense and anecdotal evidence. The explanations given by academics and accepted by the researchers of the World Bank are based on conjectures and not evidence-- statistical or anecdotal. It does not require profundity in knowledge to realise that in respect to air pollution, the most important factor is the length of time for exposure out of doors by people in urban areas that are heavily polluted. In this regard, the rich and the super rich are the least vulnerable, insulated as they are by their airconditioned life syle, at home, on the road and in offices. On other hand, the suggestion that the extreme poor and poor are less vulnerable to air pollution because of their presumed inherent immunity is fanciful, if not complete nonsense. It may also be an infantile joke. The causes of air pollution are well known and have been correctly identified in the survey report, except that brick kilns are not urban in location and as such should have been excluded. If weightages were given to the factors according to their contributions to pollution, carbon emission by mechanical vehicles would rank first and should have been placed on top. This would, in turn, suggest the ways and means of addressing the problem. Among others, the possible and effective measures include reducing the number of private cars or restricting their use by disallowing them on certain days of the week. The onus for this solution will be on the rich and super rich and the government ministers and officials who use most of the gas guzzling expensive cars. Banning cars that emit carbon in gay abandon comes next, if not of equal importance. Increasing the number of roadworthy public transport may replace the need for private cars for some and as such deserves serious consideration. Clearing footpaths of squatters, hawkers and unauthorised shops may encourage pedestrians to walk to market, workplace and to transport hub instead of using transport. It is not enough to point out that air pollution is becoming dangerously risky to health, because it is already known. Nor is it a mystery behind the silent catastrophe. It is erroneous, on the other hand, to identify the wrong victims of pollution. A study and survey on pollution will be of mere academic interest or an entertaining fairy tale if it comes up with fantastic findings. On this count, the World Bank report on air pollution is disappointing, if not ridiculous. Policy makers and analysts expect a more focused and practical report from professionals of an organisation like World Bank that purportedly is working for helping countries in dealing with development problems. In the event, they will find this report to be of little use.