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OP-ED: The cost of a breath of air

  • Published at 08:40 am May 24th, 2021

To uproot the trees at Suhrawardy Udyan would be akin to uprooting history

ESaharin Priya Shaoun is a student of Public Administration.ver considered how this world would look without trees? Now close your eyes for a split second, and try to imagine a barren earth. Trees are not just for producing lumber or paper; rather, they play a crucial role in the carbon cycle and in our breathing systems.

During this period of Covid-19, we humans suffered just for a cylinder of oxygen. Just so we can breathe. In this crisis, do we need to talk more about the importance of trees when we ourselves are suffocating due to the lack of oxygen?

Over the years, people have proposed manifold solutions about the environmental problem of deforestation, including shipping everyone to the moon to just stopping the cutting of trees. But maybe we need to talk about it again.

Unfortunately, we need to talk about a recent project -- the Independent Monument construction (Phase III) project -- undertaken by the authorities to replace the trees of Suhrawardy Udyan with seven food courts, a flower market, a children’s park, public toilets, and an underground parking lot to “attract more visitors.”

To implement the project, trees are being felled indiscriminately without any environmental consideration or consultation with environmental experts. What’s there to “beautify” when the most important priority of recent days is to breathe? 

Apart from talk of deforestation, the place also holds historical importance. Right after the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman renamed the former race course “Suhrawardy Udyan” in honour of the great Bangali leader Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. He then ordered Dhaka administration to convert the massive barren ground into a “tree-filled” public park.

For its environmental and historical egregiousness, the project faced backlash from many environmentalists, students, and the mass people. Article 24 of the constitution of Bangladesh stipulates, “The state shall adopt measures for the protection against disfigurement, damage, or removal of all monuments, objects, or places of special artistic or historic importance or interest.”

Following this, legal notices were sent to the Ministry of Liberation War affairs. A writ petition was filed in this regard on May 9, as the authorities didn’t respond to the notices. 

The petitioners were as follows: Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), Association for Land Reforms and Development (ALRD), Nijera Kori, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), and architect Mobassher Hossain.

When it comes to such a historical place, which is also a source of amusement for the many citizens of a congested Dhaka city, is it really necessary to cut down the trees there and replace them with a food court?

There are many restaurants near Suhrawardy Udyan. Is sipping a cup of coffee while walking in the Udyan really that much more important than the lives of the trees which supply us with oxygen? 

Suhrawardy Udyan is much more attractive for the historical spirit it possesses, especially for the generations to come. 

A press release by the Liberation War Ministry states that about 1,000 more trees will be planted to replace the trees which were felled. 

That initiative is certainly praiseworthy, but according to scientists, the removal of even a small number of trees has a negative impact on the biodiversity of a park or a forest. It can also produce filthy air, lifeless soil, and chronic drought.

There has to be some alternative way to carry forward with the project without cutting down the trees. Had the authorities shared their ideas with the public and pro-environmentalist groups as well as the architects, innovative ideas could have been found. 

We really don’t need to convert this place of historical significance into a money-making project, that too by sacrificing the lives of trees.

What is the way forward now? First and foremost, stop cutting down the trees. We cannot see another tree being felled. 

Effective public engagement, including public access to environmental information that is relevant, the opportunity to participate in environmental decision making, and access to environmental justice has to be assured. From the individual level to the institutional level, accountability and integrity have to be maintained.

Relevant stakeholders can play a major role in updating environmental governance in situations like cutting down trees in Suhrawardy Udyan through means of information collection, policy development consultation, policy implementation, assessment and monitoring, and advocacy for environmental justice.

We should bear in mind that NGOs and other civil society groups are not the only stakeholders in governance; the active mobilization of public support is also a major driving force behind greater international cooperation.

Lastly, we need to preserve our history, and the sources of the air we breathe. Right now, one mature leafy tree produces enough oxygen for 10 people’s lifetimes each season. 

There are 400 billion trees and 6.7 billion people on Earth -- every person has 60 trees. How much oxygen do you think we’d end up losing if there were no trees at all?

Saharin Priya Shaoun is a student of Public Administration.