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9 April 2016 Editorial


9 APRIL 2016

Another killing in Bangladesh

The death of one more secular activist in Bangladesh this week is a chilling reminder of the unrelenting assault by Islamist groups on freedom of expression. Nazimuddin Samad was returning from classes in Dhaka’s Jagannath University when attackers waylaid him. They hacked his head with a machete, and then shot him. In initial comments the police did not say whether Islamists were responsible, but it is no accident that Samad’s name figured in a hit list of 84 Bangladeshi bloggers and activists compiled in 2013 and sent anonymously to media organisations. The manner of the 26-year-old law student’s murder bore close similarity to the death by machetes of four bloggers in 2015. To reaffirm that Bangladesh is a secular republic, young campaigners have taken the fight to Islamist groups in multiple ways. They have braved threats from extremists and carried on writing, in print and on social media platforms. They have also, importantly, mobilised tens of thousands of Bangladeshis in seeking strict punishment for Islamists implicated in war crimes in the nine months leading up to the liberation of Bangladesh. These activists — mostly students and writers/bloggers — are at the vanguard of the ongoing struggle to define the secular and democratic nature of the Bangladeshi state, an issue that has been acrimoniously contested by political parties, Islamists and the military since the 1971 war.

Upon her return to power in 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made the war crimes tribunal central to the Awami League’s politics, and brought leaders of Islamist groups, notably the Jamaat-e-Islami, to trial for collaborating with the Pakistan army in war atrocities. When a key Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, was handed life imprisonment, huge protests erupted in Dhaka’s Shahbag Square demanding that he be punished with the death penalty. The protests, named the Shahbag movement, called for accountability as well as returning Bangladesh’s Constitution to its initial secular character. It is reported, for instance, that Samad had participated in the Shahbag protests. There is, however, anxiety that Sheikh Hasina is using the war crimes issue not only to secure the secular character of Bangladesh, but also to consolidate her grip on power. There is a grain of truth in the charge that she has been somewhat slow, inactive even, in bringing those responsible for the threats and assaults on secular activists to book. She has used a variety of measures to discredit her long-time rival, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and to target journalists and well-regarded civil society members such as Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus. Samad’s death is a cautionary alert that the logical extension of the purported fight to rescue the progressive vision of the country’s founders is to assert its democratic ethos. Bloggers cannot be the only opposition to extremism.

Welcome waste as new wealth

After fighting a losing battle with the growing tide of municipal waste, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has notified the new Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 with clear responsibilities assigned to various classes of consumers. For these rules to have any significant impact, however, the local bodies in charge of implementation should appeal to the rational impulses of communities — a small effort at segregating trash at source would be a good thing for their household budgets. Cities and towns would then have to provide the logistical chain to evacuate waste, with a cash compensation system in place for the consumer. In the absence of such a system, the rules issued 16 years ago failed spectacularly. Urban municipal bodies found it convenient to merely transport waste to the suburbs, sometimes through private agencies that secured lucrative long-term contracts. Policy failure is all too evident when Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar says that the estimated 62 million tonnes of waste a year is not fully collected or treated. Worryingly, it will go up to some 165 million tonnes in 2030, and dramatic episodes of air and water pollution from mountains of garbage as seen in Mumbai and Bengaluru in recent times could be witnessed in more places.

A productive start to containing the problem could be made if urban governments show the political will to rein in bulk generators of municipal solid waste. For instance, the provisions in the new rules for hotels and restaurants to support composting, or biomethanation, and for large housing societies, commercial establishments and other bulk producers to segregate waste, need to be rigorously enforced. Cess funds collected for the Swachh Bharat programme could be deployed to scale up infrastructure for composting, biomethanation and recycling, which Mr. Javadekar admits are grossly inadequate. Evidently, the Centre and the State governments have not so far taken the existing rules seriously: less than a third of the collected waste is being processed. Even where environmentally conscious citizens segregate at source, the chain of management dumps it all in landfills. The central monitoring committee under the Ministry should ensure that local bodies do not continue functioning in business-as-usual mode. They should align their operations, including waste management contracts, with the new rules under the annual operating plan. The Ministry should also enlist the services of ragpickers under formal systems such as cooperatives. Although there are provisions for fines for littering and non-segregation, this should be a second-order priority for municipalities, which should focus principally on creating reliable systems to handle different waste streams. If India could start with the separation of its ‘wet’ waste from the rest and produce good compost, that could transform cities and towns into clean and green havens filled with trees, gardens, lakes and rivers. It would also salvage millions of tonnes of recyclable plastic, precious metals and other materials. Garbology studies confirm that landfills swallow precious wealth every day. The time has come to recover it.

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