The Daily Star: Deadly yet taken lightly

People in Bangladesh every day inhale an alarming amount of black carbon, a particle not only harmful for human health but also responsible for global warming.

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Daily Star (Bangladesh), was published on March 23, 2022.

No monitoring of key air pollutant called black carbon despite its disastrous impacts on human health and environment. 

People in Bangladesh every day inhale an alarming amount of black carbon, a particle not only harmful for human health but also responsible for global warming.

But it is hardly monitored in the country though there is a national action plan in place since 2018. 

Result of incomplete combustion of fossil fuel and biomass, black carbon has the unique property of being able to absorb solar radiation and release it as heat.

It has many damaging consequences upon inhalation, including increased rates of cancer, scarring of the lung tissue and heart damage as it can enter the blood stream via the lungs.

There is no permissible level for black carbon in the air.  In Dhaka, its amount is 10 to 15 microgram per cubic metre, compared to 0.1 to 0.5 microgram per cubic metre in cities of developed countries, Dhaka University Professor Abdus Salam, an air pollution researcher, told The Daily Star recently.

“We find black carbon 8-12 microgram per cubic metre in the country’s air round the year. In winter, it reaches up to 20-25 microgram per cubic metre. It is very alarming for both human health and the environment,” he added.

“If we can control the black carbon emission, we can reduce the air pollution and also at the same time global warming.”

Prof Salam said they found burning of biomass — wood, dried leaves, garbage and agricultural wastes — responsible for 40-42 percent of black carbon emission in Bangladesh. Transportation is responsible for 45 percent and coal burning for the rest.

Black carbon, which does not last long in the atmosphere, is a key component of fine particles, or particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) —  tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and a half microns or less in width.

Prof Salam said if the PM 2.5 is higher in the air, the amount of black carbon will be higher and the air will be unhealthier. “In Bangladesh, we found that 25-40 percent of PM 2.5 is black carbon.”

Tanvir Ahmed, civil engineering professor at Buet, said black carbon is not routinely monitored in Bangladesh, therefore its concentrations from direct measurements are not available.

But it can be assumed that If PM 2.5 rises, black carbon too goes up proportionately, he added.

Black carbon has a number of disastrous consequences on the environment and climate, as well as affecting the temperature within a city, having knock-on effects on the quality of people’s lives, according to IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company.

“And with large accumulations of this taking place due to its heavy release from factories, brick kilns and automobiles, it would be found in high amounts permeating both the atmosphere and roads across Bangladesh,” it said in its 2021 World Air Quality Report.

The report puts Bangladesh on top among the most polluted countries in terms of air quality while Dhaka on the position of second most polluted capital in the world following New Delhi.

Researchers say the poorer the quality of air is, the more black carbon exists in the environment.

Prof Salam said though black carbon is a major air pollutant, the government has done little to tackle its emission despite embarking on a national action plan.

If it is controlled, the temperature of the country could be reduced by at least one degree Celsius, he also said, recommending immediate measures. 

With the support of Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change conducted baseline assessments of short-lived climate pollutants, including black carbon,  in Bangladesh in 2013.

Following this, the national action plan was adopted in 2018, aiming to reduce black carbon emission by 40 percent by 2030. 

But officials at the Department of Environment (DoE) say they have no mechanism to monitor black carbon — they only can monitor particulate matters PM10 and PM 2.5.

“We had identified the sources and formulated an action plan but due to fund crunch we could not implement it,” said Mirza Shawkat Ali, director (Climate change & International Convention) of DoE.

He, however, said they were trying to implement some of the provisions of the action plan like reducing the traditional brick kilns.

Following a High Court order last year, a detailed guideline was prepared on containing air pollution. “The Department of Environment alone cannot improve the air quality but it requires a comprehensive and coordinated efforts,” he added. 

The Daily Star: Personal Data Protection Law: Door ajar for misuse

The Daily Star logo.

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Daily Star (Bangladesh), was published on September 13, 2021.

In a forward-looking move, the government has set out to form a law for personal data protection fashioned on the EU’s momentous General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as it looks to make Bangladesh fit for the digital age.

Like the GDPR, the law would allow citizens the right to know what personal information is being collected, how the data will be used or processed, for how long, and where the data will be kept or moved, according to the draft bill.

But where it diverged from the GDPR is that the certain state agencies like the law enforcement agencies are spared from complying with the law for “functions of the government”. The Daily Star has a copy of the draft law prepared in November last year.

“The problem in the draft law is that it leaves loopholes for the government agencies, which will nullify the whole purpose of the law,” said Md Saimum Reza Talukder, an advocate who specialises in law, privacy and digital technologies.

For example, the law will not be applicable for government agencies building a case against someone under the existing laws of the land.

In other words, someone being prosecuted under any law will not have the right to data protection, meaning the spectre of the contentious Digital Security Act (DSA) — where digital data is the main evidence used — would continue to loom large.

The DSA has been routinely abused to target journalists and muzzle online dissent.

The law is being drafted for data protection, privacy and to control social media, said Mustafa Jabbar, minister of post and telecommunication.

“I want this law,” he said.

The Director General of the Digital Security Agency will be investigating violations, levying fines and ensuring overall compliance — and will be exempted from prosecution along with employees of the Data Protection Office for violations to be considered as “done in good faith”.

“If the DG or Data Protection Office is indemnified against any such prosecution, it contradicts the constitution, which guarantees the fundamental right of equality before the law. This provision cannot be expected in a democratic society,” Talukder said.

As per the proposed act, it will be mandatory for private and public organisations to appoint or designate individuals as data controllers and data protection officers.

The data protection officer is a person appointed by the data controller to make sure that the relevant data protection laws are being followed.

A data controller is defined as the person responsible for collecting or processing (or supervising the processing) of personal data.

For the government, this could be a law enforcement officer; for a non-governmental organisation, it could be the person in charge of supervising beneficiary data or even an IT department.

The DG will have the power to intervene and give mandatory directions to all data controllers and data processors.

The draft contains a provision that will enable the government to officially publish gazettes exempting certain data controllers, or “class of data controllers” from having to follow any provision of the law. With this section, it is completely exempting government agencies, or state forces who are functioning as data controllers.

This coupled with the fact that the DG is indemnified from facing prosecution for such directions takes away checks and balances from the perspective of administrative law and might also hamper institutional autonomy, he said.

“The government’s law enforcement mechanisms never hesitated to weaponise such laws before,” said Faheem Hussain, a tech policy specialist and an associate professor at Arizona State University, who chairs the school’s Global Technology and Development post-graduate programme.

The law gives the citizen the right to know about what kind of data is being collected about them, and whether any data profile is being created, but it exempts cases in which “processing is necessary for functions of the government”.

In another section, the draft law says personal data can only be processed in compliance with the law, but will not be applicable “for compliance with any legal obligation to which the data controller is the subject.”

Another touchy feature of the draft law — which is present in the GDPR — is that foreign organisations with a branch, agency or even a single piece of equipment in Bangladesh will have to comply and fall under the jurisdiction of the DG.

The personal data of Bangladeshi citizens must stay in the country.

The draft says citizens must be notified via written notice about any cross-border transfer of personal data being carried out and that the data controller cannot transfer any personal data to a place outside Bangladesh unless the government gives permission.

This means development partners, foreign NGOs and international human rights organisations as well as foreign banks like Standard Chartered and HSBC will have to localise data within the Bangladesh territory.

This might be problematic, according to Talukder.

“This might also be problematic if the government requires the development partners, INGOs, and international human rights organisations to localise data within Bangladeshi territory. Compliance with other regional and international personal data protection principles will be an issue then,” said Talukder.

Last month, Zunaid Ahmed Palak, state minister for information and communication technology, told The Daily Star that the law is being formulated to ensure that data of the people of Bangladesh stay within the country and that all foreign organisations must comply with it.

“Or else, they will not be allowed to operate in Bangladesh,” he said.

While such an uncompromising stance can work for the EU, it can backfire for Bangladesh — a country in dire need of foreign direct investment and receives a rather modest sum every year.

In 2020, Bangladesh received about $2.6 billion in FDI, down 10.8 percent year-on-year, according to data from the Bangladesh Bank.

Cross-border transfer of data that serve the “strategic interests” of the country however are exempt from this, which begs the question what constitutes as strategic interest.

For a draft that defined in detail terms such as “medical purpose” or “healthcare professional”, there are no definitions given for “strategic interest”, “national security”, or “public interest”.

Contacted, Tarique Barkatullah, director of National Data Centre at Bangladesh Computer Council and one of the authors of the law, said the draft is not final yet.

“We have submitted four drafts so far, and each time they came back with recommendations as the government is vetting the law will very carefully.”

Once the draft bill is finalised, it will be put up for public debate and then changed further.

The provisions for foreign entities might not stay in the final version of the law because the government does not want to impact the FDI flow in any way, he said.

“This provision has been rejected by the higher levels. We do not have the leverage required to make foreign companies comply with this. It is crucial for the country to attract foreign investment.”

Quizzed about the exemptions left for government agencies and whether they will remain in the final draft, he said he was unsure.

“We have observed over 130 laws from across the world, and they all have similar provisions for law enforcement agencies,” he added.

The Daily Star: How did a bike accident become an extortion case?

The Daily Star logo.

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Daily Star (Bangladesh), was published on September 13, 2021.

A simple motorbike accident by a teenage boy in the capital’s Mirpur has been turned into an extortion case against eight school and college students for reasons the victim, his family and witnesses cannot explain.

In the evening of March 7, Abdul Barek was hit and injured by a teenage biker in front of Baitur Rahman Jame Mosjid in Mirpur 12.

The 60-year-old was first rushed to a nearby hospital and then to the National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation by locals, and he returned home the same night with his fractured left arm in a cast.

A case drafted by Rab-4 three days later tells a very different story, however.

The case makes no mention of the accident or the biker. Instead, it accuses five college students and three more teenagers, including two school-goers from the neighbourhood, of “beating, injuring and extorting Tk 40,500” from Barek, a tea vendor.

The accused include a 15-year-old son of Mohon Mia, who is allegedly a victim of enforced disappearance. Mohan Mia went missing in 2018 after a dispute over a piece of land in Mirpur 2 with a local man.

Mohon Mia’s father Jamsher Ali and locals suspect some Rab members sided with that man, and turned against Jamsher’s family and some locals.

Locals and the victims’ families also suspect Rab was influenced by an informant who wanted to “teach these boys a lesson” for the bike accident.

Barek’s son Nazmul Hossain Bappi, the plaintiff of the case, said he wanted to file a case over the accident, seeking compensation, and that he only signed the statement drawn up by Rab.

He also alleged that Rab kept him and five of the accused in the Rab-4 headquarters in Paikpara for about 24 hours, before they were all taken to Pallabi Police Station for Bappi to lodge the already drafted case and for the five students to be handover to the police.

Parvez Islam, officer-in-charge of Pallabi Police Station, declined to comment citing ongoing investigation.

Rab-4 Company Commander refuted all the allegations and said they acted properly.

What happened?

Talking to The Daily Star recently, Barek said he was returning home after buying some goods for his shop when the accident happened.

He said the biker, who was alone, could be aged around 15, and that he passed out after being hit.

“I later came to know that my son filed a case. I thought it was over the accident and that we would get some compensation… But later, the whole story changed,” he said.

According to the case statement, the accused came in front of Barek’s tea stall in Mirpur 12 on three motorbikes and demanded Tk 20,000. Refused, they beat him up with iron pipes, leaving him with a fractured arm and injuries to his head and other parts of the body.

A spot visit by The Daily Star found the accident spot is about a kilometre from the tea stall.

Barek said nothing in the case statement is true.

The case, filed on March 10, also states that the accused were members of “Sumon-Habib” gang involved in extortion and mugging in the area.

Locals said there was indeed one such gang, but the accused and their families denied they were involved with the group.

The twist

After hitting Barek, the biker fled the scene, leaving the bike that he borrowed from another teenager. The Daily Star is withholding the biker’s name for legal reasons.

Subsequently, he told the bike owner, Nahidul Islam Nirob, 19, and some other friends about the accident. In the hope of getting back the bike, they contacted the victim’s family immediately, offering compensation. They also supported Barek with his treatment at two hospitals.

Nirob and four of his friends made an agreement with Bappi that they would come the following day (March 8) for final settlement regarding compensation for Barek and the return of the bike.

In the meantime, a man known as a Rab informant in the neighbourhood who happens to be an acquaintance of Bappi, told Bappi that he could use his influence to secure the compensation.

He also told Bappi, who lost his brother a year ago in a separate bike accident in the area, that he should teach these boys a lesson.

Everything changed after a Rab team raided the area as the bike owner and four of his friends went there for the settlement on March 8 evening, said Habibur Rahman Payel, one of the accused.

“As we were about to enter Barek’s house, some Rab members in plainclothes stormed the scene out of nowhere. We were rounded up and kept in Rab custody till late evening of March 9. Then we were handed over to Pallabi police,” he said.

None of them were allowed to contact their families, he claimed.

Bappi, who was also taken to the Rab 4 office along with the five accused, said he wanted to file a case over reckless driving.

“But the Rab members didn’t want it that way,” he said.

He claimed when a Rab official drafted the case, he requested the official not to charge the boys with beating up his father.

After the drafting was over, the Rab official asked Bappi to sign it.

“They also recorded a complaint that said the gang members threatened us, and had me sign that too,” Bappi added.

Nakib Uddin Shikder, a local trader, and Montaj Ali, an embroidery worker, who were made witnesses in the case, were surprised to learn about the allegations made in the complaint.

“The case statement is completely false,” Nakib said, and then went on to describe how the accident took place near the mosque before Maghrib prayers, how locals took Barek to the hospital and how they seized the bike in the hope of getting compensation for the family.

“We know nothing about the extortion and assault,” Nakib said, adding that a day after the incident, a Rab team went to his shop near the scene of the accident and asked him to sign a document.

Montaj was not even present at the scene of the accident. And yet, Rab members allegedly forced him to sign a paper when he went to a mobile servicing shop near Barek’s house the next day.

“I told them I am illiterate and cannot read or write. So, Rab members wrote my name on a piece of paper and had me practise several times before making me sign their paper,” he alleged.

Abuse of power?

Former Inspector General of Police AKM Shahidul Haque expressed his disbelief at the findings of The Daily Star, and said, “If true, then it is a clear case of abuse of power.”

Noted rights activist Nur Khan questioned the very involvement of Rab in a case of an accident.

“Rab was not supposed to be involved in this matter. If needed, police could take action [against the biker]. It appears that Rab did this beyond the legal scope of its work,” he said.

The accused college students, Habibur Rahman Payel, Nahidul Islam Nirob, Proggyanur Rahman Mughdo, Saiful Islam, and Dewan MA Mahim, are now on bail.

Of the three boys accused, one is the son of Mohon Mia, the alleged victim of enforced disappearance, the other is Mohon’s cousin while the third is a resident of the neighbourhood.

One of the three was arrested by Rab one and a half month after the case was filed, and he has since been freed on bail. The other two boys have been living in fear of arrest.

Court sources said Bappi, the plaintiff, has submitted a deposition that he had no objection if the accused were discharged.

Asked about the three other accused, Payel, himself an accused, said he did not even know them and that he came to know about the three much later.

Zahirul Islam, who retired from a security force, denied that he was a Rab informant.

He said he was in the vicinity when Rab members raided the area.

“One of my former colleagues [in the security force] was in the Rab team and he invited me to their canteen. That’s why I went to the Rab office with Bappi,” he said.

Rab 4 Company Commander Superintendent of Police Joyita Shilpi, who led the drive, said they acted upon the complaint filed by the plaintiff. She also denied that Rab members drafted the case statement.

Asked about the three teenage boys’ inclusion in the case, she said she was only aware of five accused. “I do not know what happened later.”

The Daily Star: Where do the ‘disappeared’ disappear to?

Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty.

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Daily Star (Bangladesh), was published on August 30, 2022.

“How are our loved ones? Are they eating well? Are they being tortured? Are they… alive?” These questions haunt the family members of the victims of enforced disappearance as they spend agonising weeks, months and years, holding out hope against all odds. 

At least 522 people have become victims of enforced disappearance between 2009 and 2018 in Bangladesh, cite various human rights organisations. 

Most survivors who come back home after being released from their forced captivity stay away from the public eye, never revealing where they were or who took them. A March 2022 study by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) tracked down cases happening between 2019 and 2021 and found that of the 30 percent of victims that were released, or officially arrested and thrown in jail, not one spoke up. 

But on condition of anonymity, five such survivors answered the questions asked most pertinently by their loved ones.

While their families search every alleyway, survivors say that they lived right around the corner in the capital city. 

All testimonies by survivors point to at least two separate centres in Dhaka city, allegedly run by a security force and a law enforcement agency, and a third centre in a southern district. 

According to the claims made in the interviews, the centres are fully fledged illegal prisons, running on taxpayers’ money meant for maintaining law and order and protecting the country. 

The Daily Star is refraining from mentioning the names of the units to protect the anonymity of the sources. 

Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty.
Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty.

The details described by two of the survivors correspond with each other and point to one centre – let’s call it Centre “U” – while three other survivors all gave identical testimonies of the second centre. Let’s call it Centre “C.”

The survivors were kept in the centres for periods ranging from two months up to one and a half years. Their years of detention spanned between 2015 and 2020. 

Four of the survivors were picked up for political reasons and their social media activities, while one survivor, who had been kept in Centre “C,” was a case of mistaken identity.

All of the survivors were picked up from Dhaka – this corresponds with the CGS study that found that over a third of the cases happened in just the capital city.

At Centre “U,” the victims described harsher, inhumane living conditions and torturous interrogations, while the victims at Centre “C” described a meticulously designed prison equipped to cater to any and all needs of the detainees.

Both, however, serve the singular purpose of holding a person against his will in solitary confinement, arbitrarily and illegally, for an endless period of time, not knowing whether he will be released or see the end of his life. 

Both detainees from Centre “U” described being held in cells roughly 2.5 feet in width, four feet in length and five feet in height — “such that one cannot lie down, or stand up. One must always be half-sitting or half-lying.” The cells had three concrete walls and a prison cell door with rungs. 

One of the detainees was kept there for four months before being transferred to a southern district, while another detainee was kept there for a little over a week before being transferred to a bigger cell within the same centre. Their detention periods were five years apart. 

Both detainees spoke of being blindfolded and handcuffed during the entirety of their stay at Centre “U”. 

“It was very dark, but I was also blindfolded. Everyone gets blindfolded. The cell was two floors down under the ground. They strip you down to your underwear. They give you a lungi. The lungi was given many, many hours later after stripping,” said one detainee, describing the initial moments of his captivity. 

“Our hands were cuffed at the back for the whole duration of our captivity, except when it was time to eat and when we went to the bathroom,” he said. The continuous handcuffing was such that a guard took pity on them and used to secretly open their handcuffs at night. 

“There was an uncle, an old guard; he used to uncuff all our hands after midnight for a few hours. We could then open our blindfolds. I got him on three nights during my stay,” said the detainee. He was held at Centre “U” for less than three months.

The detainee said that he was transferred to a bigger cell a week into his arrival to Centre “U”. “I climbed metal staircases to my second cell. This place had a bigger room, but it was extremely hot and there were lots of mosquitos. The rooms had stand fans – they were switched on only occasionally. They knew exactly how much would be needed to keep us alive,” he described.

“The floor was of broken cement. And we were made to sleep on the floor without any bedding. I was given a bottle of mineral water and I used to use that as a pillow under my head. It could get so cold at night on the floor…” he recalled. 

Another detainee who stayed at the centre for less than six months said, “For as long as I was in that centre, I was kept blindfolded and handcuffed. The centre was probably three storeys underground.” He said that he had realised this because when he was being transferred to another centre, they made him climb up three storeys and then he straightaway entered a vehicle kept at that level. 

Similar to the first detainee, his cell too was too small to lie down in, and he sat up for months on end. 

Both the victims said they had counted the number of detainees by the noises made by plates and doors during meal distributions. 

The first detainee said he remembered counting 12 cells, one facing the other. “I counted when my eyes were opened for the first time by the kind guard, and I saw the cell opposite to mine. I also counted by the clicking of cell doors when they used to give us food.”

The second detainee said, “There were about 14 of us in that long hall. I counted by the noise of the metal plates hitting the floor during mealtimes.” 

Similarly, even though their detention periods were spaced five years apart, they were both tortured during interrogation.

“I was interrogated for six hours. Every part of me was tortured. They used movie-like torture methods. They used something to give intense heat from up top. I was bleeding from the nose because of the torture. By the time they took me back to my cell, I was unconscious,” said one.

Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty.
Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty.

Another claimed, “I was made to sit in a wooden chair with ankle bindings and wrist bindings. They attached two crocodile clips to my earlobes and the clips were attached to two batteries. They would ask a question and send a jolt to my ears. They kept threatening that if I did not cooperate, they would attach the clips to my genitals. I urinated because of the torture.

“I would be beaten if I tried praying. They used to say that a sinner like me need not pray,” he shared.

He also described another method of torture at a second centre. After his stint in the capital city, he was taken to another centre outside the capital towards the south. The Daily Star is refraining from naming the district to protect the detainee. 

“It took many hours to reach that place. On our way to that district, I heard the names of the areas from the bus conductors crying out for passengers, and so I know where I was taken. The place was not too far from a launch jetty, because I kept hearing the whistles of the ships during my stay there,” he described. 

The torture method in that centre involved force-feeding. “They would bring buckets containing several kilograms of beef. ‘You will have to eat half of this,’ they would tell me. For each meal, we were given six eggs,” described the detainee. “You have no idea how much money they spend behind each detainee.” 

At that particular centre, the walls were of corrugated tin and the detainees were kept in what looked like large animal cages. “At least I could stretch my legs inside. Here, instead of having my hands locked in the front, one hand was put in a cuff, and the cuff was tied to a long rope attached to a hook outside the cage.” There were four cages inside the long room, he said.

“There came a time, when the other three people were taken away one day. When my handlers came back, they said that one had been let go, while the other two had been shot dead in ‘crossfire.’ From that point, until I was released, I spent my time in mortal fear thinking that I would be killed too,” he stated.

The threat of “crossfire” was used as an interrogation tool and torture method. “I was taken to a large highway in the city – I was blindfolded and cuffed so I don’t know which one. When we reached the area, everyone got out of the car, leaving me. I could feel a person getting in. He asked me questions about my political allegiance. At one point during the questioning, I was dragged out of the car and asked to run. I was afraid of being shot from the back, so I did not run and just stood in my spot,” he said. 

Both the detainees described the use of large machines as noise-cancelling techniques to drown out the voices of the people inside. 

One detainee said something like a large generator operated at all hours. “I started bleeding from the nose and throat because of the noise,” he said.

The other detainee described extremely loud music being played at certain times. “It would make my head hurt.” 

He also said he would have to shower in the middle of the night. “I was bare-chested and had only one lungi. Every time I washed it, I would have to wear the wet lungi until it dried. I am prone to the cold and it was pure torture,” he said. 

Five years later, laundry systems at the centre were seemingly improved. The other detainee described, “They had a collection of lungis and T-shirts that would get rotated among the inmates. We could wash our T-shirt and lungi and leave it to dry in the washroom and be handed a replacement,” he said. 

Both the detainees cut their hair and shaved only once during their many months of detention, just prior to release. 

Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty.
Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty.

Centre “C”

The three detainees of Centre “C” described better facilities and did not report torture. 

All detainees described the centre as a fully functioning outfit with its own kitchen, capable of cooking feasts, a barber’s room, a doctor’s room, fully stocked bathrooms, rooms furnished with beds and blankets, high commode toilets and even books for the detainees to read. 

Some of the detainees would respectfully be addressed as “sir” or “uncle.”

But none of that takes away the fact that they were being held against their will for up to two years, while their families wondered if they were dead or alive. 

“My room had an iron bed, and I was given four blankets to make a mattress. A light bulb shone at all times, and an exhaust fan whirred at the corner of the door,” the detainee said.

The man, an ordinary professional, had been picked up from his home for his social media activity, supporting opposing political thoughts. 

A few days into captivity, he asked for a book to read. “They brought me the second part of a book, and when I asked for the first part, they said another detainee was reading it. Later on, when I asked for another specific title, they had that brought in from a bookstore,” he said. “Just the first page with the name of the store was torn out.” 

The detainees were not handcuffed or blindfolded inside their cells; one probable reason for this could be the fact that their cells had two doors – one with rungs like a jail cell, and another solid door – and so they could not see anything outside. 

“The food was slipped in through a trap door at the bottom of the door. I used to wash my hands inside the room,” he said. 

Every time they had to go out of their cells, however, a black hood cover had to be worn and their hands were cuffed. This was during bathroom visits. 

“Once the hood slipped, and my handler did not bother putting it back on. I saw a kitchen to my right, and a woman cooking in there,” he said. 

All food arrived hot and the detainees had a selection to choose from. “During lunch, I was given shaak, tilapia fish, two eggs and daal. When I told them that I didn’t want to eat farmed fish and egg, they brought me beef,” said one detainee. 

“During Ramadan, I used to be given hot milk, a big banana, rice, vegetables and proteins during sehri, and fruits, juices, fried snacks, chickpeas and sweets for iftar,” he described.

Several detainees described that during special days, they used to get feasts – parathas, vermicelli, rice and nut desserts for breakfast, and rich preparations of beef and chicken and rice for meals. 

“Every time I was taken for interrogation, I was asked whether I was being fed and treated well. But regardless of how well I am treated, this is no life. I was detached from my family and they completely destroyed my life,” one detainee described. 

As a guard once said to a detainee, “Over here, you will get whatever you ask for – unless you ask for something I can’t give you.” That something would be letting their friends and families know they were safe, learning the reason for their enforced disappearance, or knowing their fates. 

The detainees described two types of rooms: one facing a wall, and the other facing a balcony. 

The detainee whose cell faced a wall said that the solid door of his cell was kept open most of the time, but was closed every time someone had to be taken to the bathroom so that he could not see them. This detainee was taken in as a case of mistaken identity. 

Another detainee whose cell faced a balcony said he had a small ventilator window, through which he could catch glimpses of the outside world. His cell was on the ground floor. 

Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty.
Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty.

“Through a small grilled ventilator, I saw a jackfruit tree bearing fruit, and watched the fruit grow. I saw the rain, I heard birds. I used to hear a boy playing a guitar and his sister complaining to his mother about him,” he recounted. Right beside this normal, beautiful world, he lay hidden in his hole of solitary confinement.

“I once knocked on the wall to try and talk to the cellmate next to me, but there was no response. The walls were about 10 inches thick and very high,” he described. 

The detainee counted every single day. Using a tiny piece of wood, he would etch the dates at the bottom of the wall. The national days helped him keep track of dates – when he used to hear nationalistic or patriotic songs play outside, he would realise what date it was, he said. 

“Past inhabitants had written many things on the wall – from poetry, to Arabic writing, to Hindu religious symbols. One day, a few men came in and painted all over them,” he described.

Once he slipped and fell in the bathroom, and needed to go to a nearby hospital for an X-ray. 

“They put a hood over my head and led me into a vehicle. That was the first time I felt the sun on the hood covering my face. I heard rickshaw wallahs yelling at each other. I thought of pulling up my hood and running away, but then I thought they would shoot me or catch me. If they caught me, I would not be getting the comforts in my cell. I held onto the officers’ reassurance that when the time came, I would be home again,” he said. 

Another detainee described how he could hear a lot of crying from the next cell. “If he cried too much, he’d be taken somewhere. Then he’d come and sleep for a long time,” he said. 

The solitary confinement was what weighed hard on some of the detainees interviewed by this correspondent, such that they would go into lengthy details about the most mundane conversations they had with their guards – their only point of contact with the outside world. 

Some of them also spoke respectfully – almost fondly – about the handlers who treated them with the minimum dignity, almost as if glossing over the fact that the handlers, too, are captors complicit in this gross human rights violation.

It would be all too easy to discredit their statements as lies, since the interviewees are not revealing their identities. But upon hearing their testimonies, the question arises: Who would want to risk going back to that?

Toxic ships sail in on false papers

With serious questions hanging over the authorities’ verification systems, scrap ships like Portland are being dismantled along the Sitakunda beach, littering a vast area with materials that are allegedly highly hazardous to health and environment. Photo: Star

Provision that allows ship-owners to self-certify the waste is up for abuse; environment ministry just not equipped to check toxic materials at scrap-ship yards in Chattogram

The ship-breaking industry in Chattogram remains extremely dirty and dangerous for workers and the environment. The top ship-recycling country in the world has failed to regulate the clandestine business effectively, for which frequent death, injury and pollution continue to be in the headlines. An investigation by Mostafa Yousuf of The Daily Star and Margot Gibbs of Finance Uncovered in the UK exposes how the weak regulatory system gets exploited for permission to scrap vessels containing asbestos and other hazardous materials.

In 2018, aged just 43, Mazidul Haque developed severe breathing problems, consulted a doctor and was diagnosed with asbestosis, a potentially fatal respiratory disease which scars the lungs. After more than a decade working in the shipbreaking yards of Chattogram, he lost his job, and the means to support his family.

“I’ve lost hope for life,” he said.

The disease is caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos, a material once prized for its insulating properties, but banned in many countries because it is deadly to those who inhale its fibres. Its use, however, remains legal in Bangladesh.

For most of his adult life, Mazidul had been working with asbestos in the shipbreaking yards. A typical merchant vessel might contain around 10 tonnes of the material, hidden away in places like the engine room and fuel lines.

Mazidul wasn’t aware of the risks involved when he started work; he was given no training to work with the material, and wasn’t provided with equipment to prevent the fibres from entering his lungs.

Asbestos is rife in Sitakunda, where most of Bangladesh’s shipbreaking workers live and work. Furniture shops sell cheap “asbestos ovens” for as little as Tk 250 (£2.20), popular with low-wage workers.

The raw materials, say shopkeepers, are supplied by the shipbreaking yards.

The powerful shipbreaking industry, which generates around half of Bangladesh’s raw steel supply, is frequently shamed in the international media for its devastating impact on workers’ lives and the environment.

But nearly a decade after the government was forced by the Supreme Court to introduce rules to protect workers like Mazidul, an investigation from The Daily Star and Finance Uncovered, a UK journalism organisation, suggests that a major part of the regulatory system is a sham.

These rules banned the import of vessels for scrap containing a range of hazardous materials including asbestos. And they demanded that shipowners must submit certificates to the Bangladesh authorities declaring their vessels have been “pre-cleaned” of these.

Our investigation obtained a cache of 28 such certificates. Each had been submitted to, and accepted by, the ministry of environment.

But respected ship recycling experts in Europe told us the documents were worthless. One branded them “rubbish”.

Even government officials privately admitted to us the certificates are not realistic, but they insisted they do not have the means to check the declarations through meaningful inspections.

Md Shahab Uddin, minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, said the ministry has plans to set up modernised laboratories to test such toxic materials.

“As the responsibility is given to the environment ministry to check the toxic material, we are determined to do whatever is needed to do to stop any malpractice,” he said.

Of the 28 documents obtained by The Daily Star, 17 were from companies registered in secretive offshore tax havens, making it difficult to hold them accountable.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) against the state in connection with shipbreaking regulations. Its judgment was damning: it found that documents used to import a toxic vessel for scrap in 2016 were “superficially prepared” or “fabricated”.

The findings of our investigation now suggest the issue may be widespread — with the role of offshore companies being a key aspect.

Lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan, director of Bela, said, “Officials have been allowing vessels to enter Bangladesh knowing full well that the country has no preparation to deal with the waste.

“It’s time to go heavily against such malpractices to ensure that cash buyers and their allies in the government are held liable if they continue to resort to their heinous tactics.”

She added, “Cash buyers are hiding behind anonymously owned offshore companies so we can’t hold them liable for the damage they cause.”

Dozens of workers have died in the yards in recent years according to local NGOs, but more still will suffer early deaths from their exposure to materials like asbestos.

Multinational shipping firms appear to have distanced themselves from these deaths in part by selling their end-of-life vessels to so-called cash buyers, many of them based offshore where their ownership is kept secret. These companies specialise in sending ships to scrap but also provide a firewall between the yards and PR-conscious shipowners.

Bangladesh is a signatory of the Basel Convention, which is supposed to stop hazardous waste being dumped in developing countries. In 2009 the Supreme Court ruled that, in keeping with this convention, ships should be cleared of their hazardous materials before they are imported for demolition in Bangladesh.

Two years later, the government imposed the import ban on toxic ships and introduced rules requiring shipowners to provide certificates showing no hazardous wastes on board.

Inspectors are then supposed to visit the ships at anchorage to check the vessels for hazardous materials before giving permission for scrapping.

But according to Rizwana, by allowing shipowners to self-certify the waste they contain, the government set up a system which was bound to fail and open to potential abuse.

And when contacted by The Daily Star, the senior government officials charged with responsibility for shipbreaking appeared to be ignorant of what the rules demanded.

In its judgment earlier this year, the Supreme Court found that the government had failed to implement this system in the case of the North Sea Producer, an ageing oil tanker previously owned by Maersk and sent from the UK to be broken up in Chattogram. The court found that the presence of hazardous materials on the vessel had been “deliberately concealed or left vague”.

It singled out a document supplied by a company based in the Caribbean tax haven of Saint Kitts and Nevis, claiming the ship contained no hazardous materials on board, including “nil” asbestos.

It was later discovered that the ship had illegal levels of radioactive waste on board, and according to documents submitted to the court, 500kg of materials containing asbestos was removed from the vessel.

The rules have been amended a number of times in the last decade, meaning that there has been disagreement over whether they required hazardous materials to be moved from the ship’s structure.

But the Supreme Court ruling in the North Sea Producer case directed the government to “stringently regulate” cash buyers and enforce the pre-cleaning system.

Maersk has yet to comment on the matter.

Interestingly, the pre-cleaning certificates obtained by The Daily Star contain identical wording to the North Sea Producer document.

Of the 28 certificates leaked to The Daily Star, half were submitted by companies based in secretive tax havens, including five from St Kitts and Nevis. Ownership of “offshore” companies like these — which stand to make million dollar profits on their deals — is a tightly guarded secret.

According to Rizwana, cash buyers’ use of anonymous companies protects their true owners from potential liability for the damage they cause.

A third of the vessels in the cache used flags of convenience like Palau and St Kitts and Nevis, which are blacklisted by European port authorities for their poor enforcement of international shipping conventions.

Many of the certificates declare: “Based on the information available, we hereby confirm that the subject vessel [is] not carrying hazardous cargo nor nuclear items on board and presently is not carrying hazardous cargo onboard. As such, the ship is safe without any non-hazardous material.”

Around half the certificates then list the materials that the ships are clear from. First on the list is asbestos, frequently stating, “Nil — based on the available information”.

Wouter Rozenveld, who runs a ship recycling consultancy which works with yards in the EU, Turkey and China, said the declarations on the certificates are “rubbish”.

Most ships headed for the beaches in South Asia were built decades before international rules banned the use of asbestos in shipbuilding in 2011.

“You’ll find asbestos in the gaskets, in the fuel lines, in the sea water lines, in the firefighting lines,” Rozenveld explained. “You cannot operate a vessel without these things. The workers who clear this will in decades die of asbestosis.”

He said it would only be possible to clean a ship completely after cutting the ship down to its bare steel, which would take months of work from asbestos-trained workers.

“To do this removal would take a team on board for three months and it would cost you millions.”

Another European expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained: “This whole concept of pre-cleaning, it’s expensive: it’s extremely expensive and you’d only do it if you were going to scrap the ship in a good yard.”

He added, “We would always expect a statement of no asbestos on board to be backed up by some sort of evidence: what testing or sampling have they done?”

Mohammad Moazzom Hossain, director of Chattogram’s Department of Environment, told The Daily Star that it “exerts all efforts to ensure that ships are free of hazardous materials”.

But he said the department has no means of even testing for asbestos.

This means that the offshore companies’ claims that ships are “safe” for breaking are being accepted without any reasonable chance of being verified.

AKM Shamsul Arefin, who recently retired as head of ship recycling at the Ministry of Industries, says the ministry was aware that asbestos would still likely be present in ships’ engine rooms, despite the claims made on the pre-cleaning certificates.

He said: “That is why we made it mandatory to have an asbestos decontamination room in the yard to make sure this poison does not go outside the yard.”

However, Department of Environment reports from this October-November show that many of these decontamination rooms are not functional.

Officials at the Department of Environment and Ministry of Industries, speaking anonymously, admit that they are aware that the certificates do not accurately describe the hazardous materials aboard the vessels.

But they say the problem is that if authorities impose restrictions regarding this, the shipbreaking industry would not exist: if scrutinised thoroughly, poisonous substances would be found onboard every ship.

Pre-cleaning is expensive and a regime that strictly imposed it could mark the end for Bangladesh’s beaching yards. One of the main reasons that places like Sitakunda are so popular for scrapping ships is that they are so cheap to use.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is supporting Bangladesh in its efforts to bring yards up to standards set by the Hong Kong Convention, which sets out rules intended to protect workers and the environment from the damage they could cause.

Under that convention, all ships destined for demolition must have a full Inventory of Hazardous Materials, a detailed document marking the presence and location of all hazardous materials on the ship, along with a ship recycling plan agreed with the yard where recycling is set to take place.

But campaigners say these rules themselves are unacceptable as they would continue to allow thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste to be dumped each year in Bangladesh, which the country has no means to deal with. They also argue such standards would contradict Bangladesh’s own apparent ban on importing hazardous materials in ships.

Those familiar with the practices in Sitakunda say while some yards are making efforts to improve worker protections, far more is needed to satisfy the Hong Kong Convention standards.

Without these changes, workers like Mazidul Haque are likely to continue being exposed to asbestos.

The Daily Star talked to workers from five shipyards of Sitakunda about the protective gear and training they were given in their work.

Sahab Uddin says when he started working in 2010 at Khawaja Ship Breaking Yard he received no training.

“I started dismantling ships at the yard as a cutter man back in 2010 with no knowledge of the risks…. I came to learn about the risk as I lost my fellow colleagues in accidents like explosion, suffocation or fire incidents,” he said.

And although the yards now make protective gear available, the workers often remove it under pressure to work faster.

Another worker, preferring anonymity, said because the shipyards use loans to buy the vessels, they are in a hurry to pay them off quickly and avoid interest payments.

“That is why they want us to break the ship faster. The faster the ship is dismantled, the better for the owner. But it puts us at huge risk of accidents. We cannot wear proper protective gear fearing it would decelerate our speed,” he added.

Leading cash buyers Wirana and Global Marketing Systems (GMS), were contacted to comment on what basis they made declarations that the vessels were free of hazardous materials, and whether they were based on an Inventory of Hazardous Materials.

Only GMS, the world’s biggest cash buyer, which also acted as the agent for the import of the North Sea Producer, provided a response.

GMS instructed London law firm Carter Ruck to respond. Nigel Tait, a partner at the firm, said in a response that pre-cleaning certificates were based on an Inventory of Hazardous Materials provided by the original shipowners, and “reputable third party surveyors and agencies who have conducted the pre-cleaning”.

However, he also said the hazardous waste that forms part of the vessel’s structure would not be removed because it would create “safety issues while sailing”.

He said there was no legal requirement to strip back ships to their bare steel to remove all hazardous materials from the ships’ structures.

“Our client ensures that, in compliance with the Sustainable Ship and Offshore Recycling Programme, the relevant green teams (with hazmat experts) inspect the vessel and mark all potential parts/material that could contain hazardous material.”

On whether asbestos was identified, he said, “Separate asbestos decontamination rooms are provided for individual yards in Bangladesh and safely disposed of in a vertical concrete column.”

He maintained that GMS had acted legally throughout.

Now unemployed, Mazidul Haque is struggling to support his wife, mother, two sons and daughter. They are currently living on microloans, but he has no idea how he will repay them.

At the point of despair, he is now working to raise awareness about the deadly issue. He has urged the government to make sure workers are no longer exposed to asbestos.

Without that, many more workers like him will continue to suffer.

Groundwater abuse takes toll on Barind

People carry drinking water to their home in Rajshahi’s Tanone upazila. With the groundwater level dropping and rainfall decreasing alarmingly over the years, residents of the country’s Barind region have to toil hard to fetch water from deep tube wells as far as kilometres away from their homes. The photo was taken recently. Photo: Collected

Region suffers from acute water crisis; country’s first water governance project begins from 3 districts

When Matiur Rahman first ventured into fruit farming in Chapainawabganj’s Jhilim union in 2011, the major obstacle he had to meet head on was the ongoing water crisis in the northwest.

“The nearest water source was two and a half kilometres away,” he said.

He started lifting water from the distant source — a deep tubewell installed by Barind Multipurpose Development Authority (BMDA) but it dried up in six years.

“I felt helpless,” Matiur,  a Roads and Highways Department driver, said.

Experts have observed people in the region are struggling to get drinking water while many paddy farmers are either diversifying to less water-intensive crops or converting their croplands to ponds and brick kilns.

The region is characterised by decreasing rainfall and depleting groundwater levels, mostly extracted for paddy farming, rice mill operations, and other industrial purposes.

“The situation is worsening as some people are withdrawing everyone’s share of the groundwater,” said a prominent hydrologist, Prof Chowdhury Sarwar Jahan of Rajshahi University.

Apart from paddy fields, at least 35 auto rice mills in Jhilim union, which covers 23.45 square kilometres of area, use groundwater round the clock, heavily affecting the aquifer, he said.

On a recent visit to union, this correspondent observed rice mills on both sides of the Amnura-Chapainawabganj road.

Mansur Rahman, general secretary of Chapainawabganj Rice Mill Owners Association, said each of the 35 rice mills of the union has at least three deep tubewells.

Mansur’s Sagar Auto Rice Mills has six. “We have no other water options for running our businesses,” he said.

Md Mostafa, a farmer of Collegepara village in Jhilim, shifted from paddy to lentil cultivation.

“Many cultivable fields, where we cropped three times a year before, are now uncultivable because of a dearth of water,” he said.

Matiur’s venture, for instance, would have been nipped in the bud, without water.

In 2016, the NGO Development Association for Self-reliance, Communication and Health (DASCOH) gave him a water-pump and introduced him to drip irrigation, a water-saving method that allows water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either above the soil surface or buried below it.

He has now grown into one of the country’s most successful fruit farmers receiving multiple government awards in five years.

However, not all farmers in the Barind region have been as lucky as Matiur and abuse of water resources is rampant.

Unchecked industrial and agricultural use of water has depleted groundwater in a region which also saw lower than average rainfall in recent years.

On a visit to Rajshahi’s Godagari upazila on March 22, this correspondent observed the Sormongola canal, which is supposed to supply water from the Padma river to nearby agricultural fields, running dry while private deep tubewells have been installed on both sides of the canal.

Farmers The Daily Star spoke to said they were angry about having to pay high prices for water for their crops from these tubewells, while the canal ran dry.


According to Prof Chowdhury, the region’s annual rainfall has never exceeded 1,400mm in seven years till 2018, which is 45 percent less than the national average of 2,550mm.

Last year, however, the region witnessed 1,800mm of annual rainfall.

The areas of Nachol and Gomostapur in Chapainawabganj; Tanore and Godagari in Rajshahi; and Porsha, Sapahar, and Niamatpur upazilas in Naogaon are over 47m higher than sea level.

Whereas, there are areas in the same districts which are only around 10m higher than sea level, he noted.

“Paddy farming using only groundwater can have a toll on the availability of drinking water in these high and arid areas,” he said.

Groundwater provides 75 percent of water needed for rice irrigation in Bangladesh, the world’s fourth largest rice-producing country.

Bangladesh Rice Research Institute estimates around 3,000 litres of water are required to produce one kilogramme of Boro rice.

“This estimate does not even count the water use in rice mills,” Prof Chowdhury said.

Wheat and maize require around 400-600 litres of water per kilogramme production, he said.

So, grain production in the region should use surface water for irrigation, he recommended, adding a focus on less water-consuming fruit and vegetable farming can help preserve groundwater in the region.

The region’s groundwater level was only 30 feet below in the ’70s when farmers used surface and rain water for irrigation and hand tubewells for drinking water, said BMDA’s Superintending Engineer Abdur Rashid.

With BMDA installing deep tubewells in the ’90s, farmers began cultivating three crops a year turning the northwest into one of the country’s major grain-producing regions, he said.

Following BMDA’s lead, solvent farmers and businesspeople installed their own deep tubewells.

In 2012, when BMDA stopped installing fresh deep tubewells and moved to focusing on surface water, private tubewells continued to flourish for agricultural and industrial use.

Around 70 percent of the Barind region’s annual groundwater extraction of 13,710 million cubic metres is done by unregulated private deep tubewells, according to a rough estimate by BMDA recently. This amount of water would fill up around 18 lakh ponds — each 2m deep and covering one bigha.

In February 2018, the lowest groundwater level was recorded in Nachol upazila at 107 feet below the surface, a fall of over 28 feet since 2005 when the level was at 78.8 feet.

“The fall is still on,” Rashid said, adding that the levels go as low as 130 feet below the surface at the end of irrigation season.


“Everyone has equal rights to water and an optimum use of water can ensure it,” said Md Delwar Hossain, director general of the Water Resources Planning Organisation (WARPO), an apex planning body in the water sector.

Bangladesh Water Act 2013 and Bangladesh Water Rules 2018 ensure these rights, and the government has now decided to enforce laws to identify and secure water resources, and regulate their use, the DG added.

WARPO began the process on March 19 by setting up an office in Rajshahi and inaugurating a water modelling project in Sardaha union of Rajshahi’s Charghat upazila.

Under the project, WARPO will map surface and underground water resources, measure availability and adequacy of the resources following scientific methods, and secure these, officials said.

It will also determine water demands for personal, agricultural and industrial purposes, and identify the safe withdrawal limit of groundwater and thus, regulate water use.

WARPO officials said they would declare an area as water stressed, if found any, during the hydrological investigation under the project.

According to the WARPO chief, this water governance is the first of its kind in the country.

It is initially starting in three Barind districts — Chapainawabganj, Naogaon, and Rajshahi — presumed to be most affected by water scarcity.

Following the results, the process will start in other parts of the country soon, he said.

In March 2020, the Planning Commission had sanctioned the Tk 15.34 crore project titled “Operationalising Integrated Water Resources Management”.

It remained stalled due to the coronavirus situation, until earlier this month. The project is slated to be completed in June 2023.

The project will conduct hydrological investigation and water modelling in every mouza of the three districts.

The government will provide Tk 10.24 crore while the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is providing the remaining Tk 5.10 crore of the project funds.

The Institute of Water Modelling (IWM) is providing consultation while SDC’s partner DASCOH is assisting implementation in the Barind region.

Another Tk 300 crore project for countrywide water mapping and modelling is awaiting approval, WARPO officials said.

This project was a long-cherished demand of the region, said Prof Chowdhury of Rajshahi University.

“Its successful implementation is necessary. When we will know the exact water situation, we can make the right decisions for our agricultural and industrial development,” he said.

Salinity in Coastal Areas: Alternative crops ignite farmers’ hope

Govt moves to introduce new farming techniques

People living by the Kirtonkhola river in Barishal noticed in March this year that the river’s water had become unusually salty.

After an electrical conductivity test, Department of Environment officials confirmed what the locals have been saying.

They said the sudden rise in salinity may have been caused by reduced water flow from upstream and lower rainfall.

The Kirtonkhola is now another in a list of over 100 rivers flowing through the coastal region and affected by salinity due to sea water intrusion.

Saline river water also results in salinity in the groundwater which in turn increases the level of soil salinity. And that causes a significant reduction of vegetation in the affected areas, experts say.

Around 25-30 percent of the country’s arable land is located in 21 coastal districts, of which 53 percent has become saline-affected, finds a recent study by Khulna University.

According to the study, around 75 percent of land in Satkhira, 66 percent in Bagerhat, 32 percent land in Khulna, and 72 percent in Barguna are affected by salinity.

In a study by the government in 2009, salinity-affected areas increased to 1.05 million hectares from the 0.83 hectares found in the previous government study in 1973.

The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) said rice production in Bangladesh may fall by 10 percent and wheat production by 30 percent by 2050.

But seawater intrusion into the country’s river system seems to be leaving an impact on the coastal region that is much worse than forecast by the IPCC.

While farmers in other parts of the country are cultivating up to four crops a year, farmers in the coastal region are hardly able to cultivate a single one.

“Twenty-five percent of the country’s arable land is in the coastal area, which has become saline. In most of the saline-prone areas, either people do shrimp farming or cultivate transplanted Aman rice. But now we are encouraging farmers to cultivate saline-tolerant alternative crops if they cannot grow rice,” said Agriculture Minister Muhammad Abdul Razzaq.

“In a country with only 10 decimal agricultural land per capita, you will find miles after miles of barren land in the coastal area, and that is a major setback for the country,” the minister said.

But the country is gradually trying to adapt to the situation.

Scientists from Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) have developed some rice varieties that can be cultivated in saline-prone areas.

“Our scientists have developed BRRI 67, a saline tolerant variety which will be very successful,” the minister said.

Along with this saline tolerant variety, the minister said, “We will encourage them [local farmers] to cultivate alternative crops”.

People from Patuakhali did not know how to cultivate mung beans. But for the last few years, they have been cultivating mung beans, a very good alternative crop, the minister said.

Local agricultural offices in coastal districts have taken some initiatives of farming alternative crops, the minister said.

“Once the pandemic is over, we will take up a special programme to encourage alternative crop farming along with saline tolerant rice varieties,” the minister said.


Kamal Bawali of Bhulbaria village under Khulna’s Dumuria upazila, a saline-prone area, used to cultivate Aman paddy on his two bighas of land. But he hardly made any profit due to the low yield of local Aman variety.

But Kamal’s fate changed last year as he and a few other farmers received preliminary training and guidelines from a local agriculture officer on how to cultivate crops in saline-prone areas.

After learning the method last year, Kamal cultivated watermelon on his land. He grew around 800 watermelons on one bigha. This year he cultivated even more on a total of five bighas of land.

He spent Tk 56,000 to cultivate watermelons. In a bumper harvest, he earned a profit of around Tk 3 lakh from watermelons this year.

Rabiul Islam Robi, union parishadchairmanof Sharifpur of Dumuria, told The Daily Star that people of the region used to put all their hopes on salt-water shrimp (bagda) farming.

Farmers had tried to grow vegetables and sowed seeds many times, but it used to be damaged due to the effect of saline water and it was not possible to produce vegetables or other crops here, he said.

But now, farmers are growing watermelons, wheat, maize, and winter vegetables from their land using rainwater.

Many people migrated from the area as they lost their livelihoods. But now the method of digging small ponds to preserve fresh water for irrigation to produce vegetables or other crops have raised hopes in Dumuria, Batiaghata, Dacope, Paikgacha upazilas of Khulna district over the last couple of years, the UP chairman added.


Farmers store rainwater by digging small ponds in a portion of their land for irrigation of crops. Later they apply potash, gypsum and organic fertiliser on the land as per the rules taught by agricultural officials to grow crops.

Using this method, thousands of farmers in saline-prone areas of Khulna have revolutionised agriculture, said GM A Gafur, additional director of Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) of Khulna region.

Mosaddek Hossain, Dumuria upazila agriculture officer, told The Daily Star that all of Magurkhali union and many parts of Sharafpur and Shobhana unions were once saline-prone areas fit only for shrimp cultivation.

“Using freshwater from rainwater and using 20 kgs of potash, 15 kgs of gypsum and organic fertilisers, farmers are now producing multiple crops,” he added.

This has brought a radical change among farmers. They are now cultivating Aman, Aush, corn, watermelon, potato, onion, eggplant, gourd, tomato, pumpkin, bean, long bean, red amaranth, cauliflower, gourd, radish, etc.

According to the DAE, about 6,000 tonnes of vegetables are being produced in just these three unions. In the last three and a half years, 2,500 hectares of land – 75 percent of cultivable land — has come under agricultural cultivation in the unions through a joint venture of farmers and the Department of Agriculture.

Officially, 2,000 farmers are being trained in saline-prone areas. DoAare also providing seeds to those farmers at free of cost.

Battling the spectre of fires in densely populated areas

Fires in commercial establishments do more damage than setting buildings ablaze.

Lives are lost, businesses disrupted and wounds take years to heal.

In Bangladesh, a survey by the Fire Service and Civil Defence headquarters, in 2017, showed that only 129 of 3,786 establishments in Dhaka, the country’s capital city, were not classified as “Risky” or “Extremely Risky”.

The results signal the high risk of accidents taking place.

On Mar 28, 2019, a massive fire engulfed the FR Tower in Dhaka’s commercial Banani area, killing 26 people and leaving around 100 people injured.

Barely a month ago, at least 70 people were killed after a fire broke out in an apartment building that was reportedly also used as a chemicals warehouse and spread to nearby buildings.

Fire accidents are not uncommon in densely populated Bangladesh owing to lax safety regulations and poor building conditions.

Officials say the problem is that the laws requiring buildings to have safety measures was enforced only in 2006.

There is a treasure trove of risk assessments conducted by urban planners over the years all nailing down the same conclusion — the city needs to be protected.

“In 2017 we surveyed over 3,500 schools, colleges, universities, hotels banks, hospitals, media houses and shopping markets within Dhaka city to assess their vulnerability to fire, and what we found was pretty frightening,” said Major AKM Shakil Newaz, the director of operations at the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence headquarters.

“None of the buildings built before 2006 have the things necessary for fire protection, because the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) was yet to come into effect,” he added.

The BNBC was drafted in 1993 and published in the form of a government gazette, but was not enforced as a legally binding document until a decade and a half later.

The factors examined were quite simple and gauged a building’s basic fire-safety measures – does the building have firefighting equipment? Is it heavily populated? Does it have emergency exits? Does the establishment practise evacuation drills? Was there any chance of an electrical fire? Is there an underground water reservoir?

“All high-rise constructions that took place after 2006 needed to get a fire safety clearance from the Fire Service department. They will not be able to build any building over six storeys without having the plans inspected by someone from this department,” said Major Shakil.

However, this still excludes majority of the city.

This is what people in the 22-storey FR Tower – which was constructed before the 2006 cut-off mark – were quick to find out.

There was not a single fire-protected staircase in the entire building.

“The building had only one staircase,” said Kazi Saad Nur, whose wife Zarin Tasnim works on the 12th floor of the building.

“She called me and told me she cannot come down, so she went up to the 15th floor. But after that her phone was found switched off and I was unable to reach her,” he said. Zarin was later reported to have suffocated to death.

The staircase, which was already overcome with smoke, was, however, not the only one in the building.

There was another – a barely one-foot wide staircase snaking out of the back of the building. This staircase had become a doubly precarious undertaking during the fire.

The risks were such that the Fire Department actually sent two letters in 2017 and 2018 to the building authorities which highlighted the lack of fire safety measures in the building.

“The staircase was filled with smoke and my brother, who was stuck on the 9th floor, was unable to use it to escape. He and his colleagues used a hacksaw to cut open the iron grilles on the toilet window and jumped to the next building,” said Nalifa Mehelin, another relative of a victim who was trapped in the fire.

The lack of safety measures in buildings has become alarmingly common.


On March 2, 2019, just ten days after an inferno took over Churihatta in Chawkbazaar, a fire broke out again in the area. This time it was a scrap metal shop where a gas cylinder had exploded, turning the shop white-hot, and leaving three staffers with as much as 30 per cent burns.

On the very same day a fire broke out in a slum in Tejgaon Industrial area, gutting 50 homes. This newspaper reported that the fire stemmed from a pile of rubble left behind by government workers, following an eviction drive.
Three days later, a fire broke out in a tyre warehouse in Old Dhaka’s Nawabpur area. Media reported that it took firefighters two hours to bring the flames under control.

Before the fumes from that had died down, there was a fire in a slum in Nakhalpara – one big enough for the fire service to need eight units to bring it under control. Following this, there was another fire in another scrap goods warehouse in Lalbagh.

All of this was a month’s work.

But more importantly, these were only the ones that were reported – in fact a Star Weekend analysis showed that only one per cent of fire incidents are ever reported in the media.

Calculating from the statistics of the last three years published by the Fire Service Department, there are on average 43 fire incidents every single day that need to be tackled by firefighters.

Additionally, an article published in 2004 by the Institute of Engineers, Bangladesh, titled “Fire Hazard Categorization and Risk Assessment for Dhaka City in GIS Framework”, found that the Tejgaon Industrial Area, Fulbaria and Postogola were the most hazardous areas in the city to live in, having more than 30 fire incidents annually. The next-worst areas were found to be Jatrabari, Sadarghat, Shakhari bazar, Waizghat, Simpson Road, New Market and Mirpur-1.

Risk zones are many. In 2001, a Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) graduate student studying the area of Mohammadpur found that shopping centres and filling stations have more frequent fire incidents.

On top of the pile of tinder – which are high-rises without basic safety measures – there are 867 chemical warehouses spread throughout the city which too are operating without fire safety clearances, according to statistics provided by the department.
In 2012, students from BUET’s department of Urban & Regional Planning (URP) assessed 153 chemical warehouses on Armanitola road for fire risk.

All the chemical warehouses studied showed that the amount of chemicals stored exceeded the amount allowed by BNBC. In most of the warehouses the amount stored was between 2,500kg and 5,500kg, with the highest going to 10,000 kilograms.

Worse yet, they found that of the warehouses, 17 percent had chemicals that would ignite almost immediately – similar to what had been observed in Chawkbazaar.

“None of the buildings built before 2006 have the things necessary for fire protection, because the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) was yet to come into effect,”

Only a quarter of the warehouses were storing non-flammable materials.

This fire risk did not seem to cause a dent in the psyche of the businessmen there – very few of the warehouses had fire extinguishers and none of them had fire alarms or any fire-protected staircases. A quarter had staircases which also served as storage units. Shockingly, half of the warehouses had homes and hospitals in the same building.

“The people who are in the business of importing and storing chemicals do not have knowledge of the chemical properties of those substances at all. Most chemical shop and storage owners do not even accept that they are dealing with chemicals,” said Nushrat Jahan, one of the authors of the paper titled “Fire Hazard Risk Assessment of Mixed Use Chemical Storage Facilities: A Case Study of Chemical Warehouses in Old Dhaka”, which was published in Journal of Bangladesh Institute of Planners.

The author, currently a Planning PhD student at the University of Toronto, also added that all of this boils down to creating awareness.

There is a treasure trove of risk assessments conducted by urban planners over the years all nailing down the same conclusion — the city needs to be protected.

A thesis published in 2008 by the Department of Urban Planning (URP) at BUET narrowed in on what was then ward 72 (now ward 36) comprising Islampur, Shakhari bazar, Simpson Road and Court House Street, and found that most of the buildings there were moderately vulnerable to fire.

Similarly in 2015, a report published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction by graduate students of University of Texas and BUET, studied the buildings in ward number 29, which is the area around Islambagh.

They found that less than half of the buildings there could be accessed by fire engines and that nearly 59 percent of the buildings were vulnerable to fire.

So why can not the fire service simply go and evacuate the places without any fire safety clearances?

“We do not have the powers of a magistrate. We can only intervene after a disaster has already occurred,” said Maj Shakil.

Besides, he added, that it was not as if they could empty out the city considering the widespread nature of the problem.
“Did you know that 71 percent of the streets in Dhaka are too narrow for fire engines to pass through?”

According to the current law, the roads need to be at least nine metres wide for fire engines to pass through. There needs to be at least a 4.5 metre wide space in front of the building for the fire units to set themselves up.

“These laws completely fall flat in entire areas like Old Dhaka, Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Rampura and Khilgaon, among others,” he said.

This story by Zyma Islam was originally published by the Daily Star on March 29.

Published on March 29, journalist Zyma Islam exposed the inadequate fire safety of buildings in Bangladesh hot on the heels of a massive fire on March 28 in Dhaka, the nation’s capital. Dubbed as the Banani FR Tower fire, the flames left 26 people dead and around 100 injured. In response to criticism, Housing and Public Works Minister SM Rezaul Karim declared on March 30 that all buildings constructed violating rules would be identified within 15 days. “If necessary, the identified buildings will be sealed off, demolished, or all activities will be suspended there until safety is ensured,” he told reporters after visiting a Gulshan kitchen market where a fire broke out in the morning.

Trafficked into nightmares

Local agents have been smuggling victims across Benapole’s border by showing forged documents of family relations at immigration checkpoints. Sometimes the gang members marry the victims only to sell them into prostitution later.

The Daily Star learned about this after talking to six victims and law enforcers in bordering areas recently.

In most cases, the victims from different parts of the country are gathered at small huts built by the traffickers near Benapole border. At that point, they are treated nicely and given the impression that they would actually go to India for a better future.

When it is time, their counterparts in India would notify their accomplices, and the victims are taken to the other side of the border.

For commuting, the traffickers always use motorbikes just as locals in border areas do, and carry sweetmeat, fish or gift packets to avoid drawing suspicion.


According to victims and local law enforcers, the traffickers use Putkhali, Sadipur, Boroachra, and Gathipara points of Jashore to traffic the victims into India without passports.

The victims are first taken to Jashore and then to the border points by motorbike before they are kept in the small huts.

Rights activists said the gang sells a woman or girl to Indian brothels for Tk 2.5 to 3 million.

Take the case of victim Bonya (not her real name).

The 17-year-old girl used to live with her parents in the capital’s Mirpur and was looking for a job after completing higher secondary education. She left home after a woman, her neighbour, promised her a better job in India.

On Jan 28, 2017, she went to Jashore by bus with the woman’s boyfriend. From Jashore town, they went to Benapole by motorbike.

“For the next five days, the man kept me in a small hut with a TV, almirah (a cupboard) and small bed,” Bonya said, talking to The Daily Star in Jashore town after her rescue.

“The man asked me to stay inside the hut and went away. I was not allowed to go outside for security reason, and a woman gave me food timely.”

Bonya come back home in March last year with the support of Rights Jessore, a human rights organisation.

“On Feb 5, the man came back early in the morning and took me near Putkhali where a boat was waiting for me,” she said.

“After crossing the river, I found a man with a motorbike. He drove me into a dense forest. One hour later, I saw a locality.”

In the area, Bonya was kept in a house and forced to sleep with some men, she said. “After a few days, I was being taken to a brothel area. On the way, I ran from them and went to the local police.”

Police then sent Bonya to a shelter home in West Bengal, and she finally made contact with Rights Jessore from there.

This reporter recently visited Putkhali in Benapole, and met a person called Sagar with the help of a local man while posing as a client.

During the conversation about how to cross the border without a passport, Sagar said he could make the arrangement, but it would cost Tk 5,000 (US$59.13) because “border security has been heightened recently.”

When asked if there were two persons including a woman, Sagar grinned and said he could arrange that too, but the cost would go up to Tk 16,000. “We charge extra for women because it is risky, and it takes time.”

After the correspondent agreed, Sagar said, “You need to stay near the border for one day or two. We will first clear the border for you and then help you cross it.”

Sagar demanded an additional Tk 300 for every overnight stay and Tk 200 for food at the hut. He also advised the correspondent to carry some additional cash to buy sweetmeat or fruit on the way.


Locals and law enforcers said each of the border points is run by local ruling party men. They pay hefty amounts to law enforcers to run the trafficking activities smoothly.

Executive Director of Rights Jessore Binoy Krishna Mallick said, “We have learnt from rescued victims and our local network that some people are leading the nexus at border points using political identity.”

At present, one Ghana Biswas oversees the Putkhali point, Ashok Sen the Boroachra point, and Jahidul Islam the Sadipur point of Benapole, The Daily Star learned after talking to some accomplices of the gangs and sources of law enforcement agencies.

All of them are supporters of the Awami League and have been involved in human trafficking for years, but were never arrested, the sources said. Locally, they are known as farmers despite owning luxurious multi-storey homes in nearby Sharshaupazila, they added.

“In the same way, the traffickers get passports for underage girls. They identify them as children or siblings while making fake passports and documents,”

The Daily Star tried to communicate with them but their phones were switched off.

Rights activists said the gang sells a woman or girl to Indian brothels for Tk 2.5 to 3 million.

Asked about the alleged complicity of the ruling party men, Awami League’s Benapole unit President Enamul Hoque Mukul said some may get involved, but they are doing it in secret.

“We take strict action against whoever is found guilty.”

He said the law enforcers have tightened security, and the situation is improving now.

Asked about AL men’s involvement, lieutenant-colonel Selim Reza, commander of Border Guard Bangladesh-49 (BGB), refused to give a direct reply.

He, however, said they take action against those found involved in the crime. “The situation has got better now, and the number of trafficking incidents has come down to almost zero for our increased vigilance and action.”

Salauddin Sikder, additional police superintendent of Jessore, said trafficking through the border declined in recent years although there were still some reports of trafficking.

He said he had no specific information about law enforcers’ involvement in the crime but warned of action if any member of the force was found guilty.


In recent times, the traffickers have changed techniques. Now they get their prey across the border using the “legal” channel.

“For a woman, the traffickers make fake documents like a marriage certificate and a passport. Then they cross the border like a couple going on a trip to India,” Masud Karim, officer-in-charge of Benapole Police Station, told The Daily Star.

“In the same way, the traffickers get passports for underage girls. They identify them as children or siblings while making fake passports and documents,” said the OC, who claimed to have got the information after interrogating victims.

Now few victims cross the border illegally, he said. “Some are still doing it without passports, but most of them have relatives in India, or they are sick and poor.”

“We charge extra for women because it is risky, and it takes time.”

Asked about raiding the border huts, the OC said they often conduct drives and take action against the criminals. Sometimes, they also rescue victims from the huts.


There are some cases in which traffickers marry a girl before selling her to a brothel in India.

On January 18 last year, a Jashore court sentenced one Shohag Hossain of Narail for life and fined him Tk 50,000 for selling his wife to a brothel in Mumbai.

Shohag married the girl of Jashore Sadarupazila on July 7, 2007. Later, he told his in-laws that he would take his wife to India for a better job. The girl’s family refused but he kept insisting, the victim’s family told The Daily Star in May last year.

Finally, Shohag went to India with his wife on April 15, 2009, without letting anyone know. When her family found him missing, they filed a complaint with police and went to Rights Jessore. A few days later, Shohag came back home alone, and said his wife went missing in India.

Rights Jessore rescued the girl from a Mumbai brothel on May 7, 2010, using its network.

This story by Mohammad Jamil Khan was originally published by The Daily Star on Jul 22.

The reporter had to act as a local to get in touch with gang members who ran the trafficking trade, in order to acquire information pertaining to the story. Social workers and law enforcement sources, who worked with the trafficked victims, helped clue him in on the gang members tasks and whereabouts. However, he did not get much data or support from the local law enforcers. While working in the field, he convinced locals to help him cross Benapole’s borders without a passport by paying them sums of money. The NGOs who used to work to rescue traffic victims also assisted him in getting some ideas and provided him a database of contacts. As local political leaders were benefiting from the trafficking trade, the reporter was forced to hide his identity while staying in the bordering village. The social workers, who helped him throughout his investigation, alerted him to a possible threat from a political muscleman. After the story published, the reporter received dozens of phone calls congratulating him on the findings. To his knowledge, although illegal human trafficking is still underway through bordering points, the number of trafficking cases has reduced significantly.