Authorities in Bangladesh have rolled out two schemes to combat air pollution in the capital Dhaka, one of the world’s fastest growing mega cities and one of the most polluted.

On June 1, Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal proposed in his budget proposal to parliament a new tax on multiple car ownership. This would serve as a disincentive for people to own more than one car, and thus help reduce both the exhaust emissions and traffic congestion that have long plagued Dhaka.

Owning more than one car is widely viewed in Bangladesh as a matter of prestige and social status. But the consequences of having so many cars on the roads include notoriously bad air pollution and thousands of deaths due to road accidents every year.

That proposal follows on the announcement in late May by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority that buses older than 20 years and trucks older than 25 years will be taken off the roads to improve air quality. Sitangshu Shekhar Biswas, the BRTA director of engineering, told Mongabay this would affect some 60,000 buses and trucks.

Proposed carbon tax

The finance minister’s proposal has received widespread support in parliament and from environmentalists, civil society organisations and regular Dhaka residents, who say they capital’s streets are clogged with an unnecessarily high number of private cars.

Under the proposal, individuals who already own a car would have to pay a “carbon tax” for every additional car they own. The amount will depend on the additional car’s engine size:

  • Up to 1.5 litres → 25,000 taka ($230)
  • 5-2 l → 50,000 taka ($460)
  • 2-2.5 l → 75,000 taka ($690)
  • 3-3.5 l → 200,000 taka ($1,850)
  • >3.5 l → 350,000 taka ($3,230)

The Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, which registers motor vehicles in the country, says there are nearly 57.5 million of them across Bangladesh, of which more than 20 million are in Dhaka. That amounts to one motor vehicle for every resident of the city. The authority doesn’t have details of how many people own more than one car.

“People fight to get on board crammed buses while many rich people use costly chauffeur-driven cars with one person or two,” Md Mujibul Haque, a former labor minister and current member of parliament with the main opposition party, told Mongabay. “You will get a lot of rich families keeping chauffeur-driven cars on standby to carry their food to their workplaces from their houses. These additional cars cause traffic jams, on one hand, and pollute the air, on the other.

“Also, you will get many four-member families maintaining four cars: one for the husband, one for the wife, one for the son and one for the daughter. But I think one car would suffice,” he said.

“As the biggest opposition in parliament, we the Jatiya Party MPs support the government’s carbon tax proposal,” Haque added.

Transport planners have for years called on the government to regulate the number of private cars, microbuses, jeeps, three-wheelers and other small vehicles that they say prevent the maximum utilisation of the limited roads in Dhaka.

Nazrul Islam, chair of Dhaka-based think tank Centre for Urban Studies, welcomed the government’s plan to tax multiple car ownership.

“The carbon tax on multiple cars would give people a sense that owning more than one car is not a good practice; such a measure would discourage some people from buying more than one car,” he told Mongabay.

However, he said the proposal was also “contradictory, because the government has been building bus rapid transit, overpasses and new roads for buses and private cars and now proposes discouraging [them with a ] carbon tax”.

“The road space occupied by two private cars with a maximum of 10 people on board can accommodate a big, single-engine, double-decker bus that can carry up to 100 passengers,” Islam added.

He also welcomed the plan to pull old buses and trucks off the roads, calling them more polluting than the new ones.

Buses are the lifeblood of Dhaka’s public transport system: nearly 51,000 buses are registered in the city, where the dire traffic means they crawl along at an average speed of less than 5 kilometers per hour.

When stuck in traffic, which is most of the time, the idling older buses spew out thick clouds of black smoke. This forms a major part of the vehicular emissions that contribute to Dhaka’s poor air quality, according to Ziaul Haque, director for air at the Department Of Environment.

“We have been asking the BRTA for nearly 20 years to ban the old buses and trucks that pollute air. We are happy that finally the authority has heeded our advice,” he told Mongabay. “We hope that the air quality in Dhaka will improve if the old buses and trucks are phased out.”

Buses in Dhaka. Credit: Shadman Samee from Dhaka, Bangladesh, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Not the biggest polluters

A joint study by the Department of Environment and the World Bank in 2019 identified the hundreds of brick kilns operating throughout the suburbs as the single biggest contributor to the hazardous fine particulate matter circulating in Dhaka’s air. While they account for 58% of these pollutants, vehicles contribute 10%, according to the study.

Air pollution caused some 80,000 premature deaths in Bangladesh.

The Department of Environment has already begun actions against unregistered brick kilns, but hundreds continue to operate without approval.

Provat Saha, a lecturer at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and member of the World Bank team that conducted the study, said the major cause of air pollution in Dhaka is burning of biomass in and around the city. He added that 30% of Dhaka’s air pollution wafts in from the Indian state of West Bengal, carried there by the winds.

Vehicle emissions, Saha said, are responsible for at most 7% of air pollution in Dhaka. “So phasing out old vehicles would contribute least,” he said.

Old vehicles not the problem

Other stakeholders in the transport sector have expressed doubt that the withdrawal of old vehicles will reduce air pollution in Dhaka.

Masud Rana, a commercial bus driver, told Mongabay he drives about 100 km daily, going through 37 litres of diesel.

“The bus I drive has a mileage of nearly three kilometers per litre”, “though this bus is only five years old. An old bus consumes an almost similar amount of diesel,” Rana said. “New engines consume less diesel in an ideal situation. But for Dhaka, there is no significant difference between an old vehicle and a new vehicle.”

He defined the “ideal situation” as one in which the bus would be routinely maintained, including oil changes and filter replacements. But that’s rarely the case in Dhaka, he said, where bus owners try to keep costs down.

“Buses produce black smoke when we cannot drain out lubricating oil and clean the air filters regularly,” Rana said. “We cannot go for regular maintenance of the buses as this involves further costs. The owners cannot afford it. They would try to collect a raised fare from the passengers if they had to invest in regular maintenance. But neither the government nor the passengers would pay the additional fare for maintenance.”

He added that, at the same time, transport workers remain so overworked that they’re often sleep-deprived. In the little free time they have, they prefer to rest or chat or brown their mobile phones instead of maintaining the buses. “They will only take the buses to the workshop when it is not working,” Rana said.

Another important issue is the traffic, Rana said; if this doesn’t improve, then neither will fuel consumption, and hence air quality, he said.

“Phasing out old vehicles would not solve vehicular pollution in Bangladesh unless the other issues such as traffic jam are resolved,” he said.

Saha said another factor is the persistent use of highly polluting diesel, calling it “the pressing problem” when it comes to vehicle emissions.

“Diesel with higher sulfur and lead concentrations causes more pollution,” he told Mongabay. “We must think seriously about it to improve Dhaka’s air quality.”

Islam, the urban planner, said withdrawing so many buses, minibuses and trucks would cause a transport vacuum in Dhaka.

“The government should work out a detailed plan to replace old vehicles with new vehicles with specific timelines; otherwise, the old vehicles cannot be removed from the streets,” he said. “In that case, a vested group of businessmen will capitalise on the situation at the cost of the people’s sufferings and the environment.”

This article was first published on Mongabay.