Published:  12:03 AM, 24 July 2020

Shahjahan Siraj and ban on plastic shopping bags

Shahjahan Siraj and ban on plastic shopping bags
If citizens are talking about Bangladesh's independence, if they are talking about the pro-democracy movement in 1969, if they are talking about the protest against misrule during post-independence, surely they are talking about career politician Shahjahan Siraj.

Once a fiery student leader of the mid-1960s has changed political hats, changed political allegiance, but maintained his political clout.

In post-independence, I met him in 1973 at Dainik Gonokantha newspaper office in Wari, in the old Dhaka. The newspaper was founded by Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), an opposition party. The only daily newspaper in Bangladesh was sold at a double price at the newsstand.

In later months he remembered me very well, possibly for asking curious questions. At Gonokontha office I also introduced to JSD stalwarts Serajul Alam Khan, ASM Abdur Rab, Kazi Aref Ahmed, Monirul Islam, Hasanul Haque Inu, Sharif Nurul Ambia and host of other student leaders.

His chequered political career led him to win five general elections to parliament from Kalihati, Tangail. After winning the 2001 parliamentary elections, he was made Minister of Environment and Forest (10 October 2001 - 6 May 2004) in the cabinet of the pro-Islamist regime of Khaleda Zia.

During his tenure as the environment minister, the production and use of plastic shopping bags were banned in Bangladesh, polluting two-stroke three-wheeler taxis were withdrawn from the road, and tree plantation turned into a social movement.

The politician accepted a challenge to contribute to an environmental cause. At that moment the minister was approached by Hossain Shahriar, an environment journalist who is also executive director of the Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO).

Meanwhile, the capital Dhaka suffered from water-logging in the monsoon season. The newspaper blamed tons of discarded plastic bags dumped indiscriminately has clogged the city drains and unable to remove the rainwater quickly.

Environmental groups say the millions of polythene bags, food packages disposed of every day are blocking drainage systems in cities, posing a serious environmental hazard.

The eminent politician and a journalist concluded that plastic bag production, sale, and use have to be axed to save the people from a health problem.

Together they developed a long-term plan to ban plastic shopping bags, commonly known as polythene bags.

Environmental campaign activists argue that, without tougher environmental legislation, it will be very difficult for the government to attain any success in its fight against plastic bags.

The non-degradable shopping bags were introduced into Bangladesh nearly four decades ago, quickly replacing jute bags and paper bags (known as tonga) produced from recycling paper.

The production of the plastic bag has thrown out tens of thousands of self-employed workers producing paper bags, recycled bags from heavy packaging materials, and also traditional bags made from jute, the golden fibre.

Environment Minister Shahjahan Siraj explained that the decision to ban plastic bags has been finalised to save the metropolis from an imminent environmental disaster.

Researchers found that plastic bags in agricultural lands have reduced fertility in the soil, raising concerns about farm produce.

They also posed a serious threat to human health, especially to people involved in the production and recycling of polythene.

Industry leaders debated that the dangers were exaggerated, though they admitted the plastic bags were the main cause of water-logging.

Minister Shahjahan Siraj dismisses the industry leaders' claim, saying the losses would be temporary. He stated: "We will be able to employ far more people through reviving the declining jute industry, producing environment-friendly jute bags."

The minister while pushing the giant ball up the hills was warned of the repercussions from the trade bodies. Simultaneously the Commerce Ministry, Industries Ministry, and hosts of lawmakers stood against Shahjahan Siraj's initiative.

Journalist Hossain Shahriar along with a team of bureaucrats selected by Shahjahan Siraj after months of hard labour, finally placed a draft law to ban the plastic bag in the parliament.

The use and production of plastic bags continued unabated under the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995.

The enactment of the 2020 law ensures a complete ban on the production, import, marketing, sales, display, storing, distribution, transportation, and use of polythene of less than 55-micron thickness for business purposes.

The enforcement of the complete ban on the sale and use of plastic bags in the Dhaka, the consumers were getting used to alternative shopping bags instead of plastic bags.

All shopping malls, grocery chain stores, superstores, clothing stores, bookstores do not give plastic bags as such violations invite hefty penalty and imprisonment.

The new consumerism culture is a major shift from plastic bags to alternative biodegradable low-cost bags is visible.

Thus Bangladesh became the first country in the world to implement a ban on plastic bags and many other countries begin to follow suit.

Shahjahan Siraj died at the age of 77 after prolonged cancer ailments on 14 July 2020.

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award.
Email: [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.

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