BELA’s Journey

Syeda-Rizwana-HasanBELA was registered as a society in 1992 and its work started in 1993 when I joined as one of its first recruits. As a fresher from the university, I joined BELA to carry out research and publish my work with the sole intention of securing scholarships for higher education abroad.  When I joined, I had no idea that my destiny has been written in a completely different way. When we started in 1993, BELA consisted of a small team of 7 people with no orientation on environmental law or justice. Environment, as a subject, did not feature on the academic syllabi of any university in the country at the time. As such, this area was completely new for us all, with the exception of Dr. Mohiuddin Farooque, BELA’s founder. Dr. Farooque was enthusiastic about teaching us the laws but not through conventional lectures; rather, he set assignments for us on environmental issues and related laws, encouraged us to read newspaper reports on environmental problems and visit the places of occurrence. Sometimes, he would even drive us to the places. When we started interacting with people, what would otherwise have remained a newspaper report turned into a real life story. It was our exposure to the field level realities and interactions with people that made us aware, informed, motivated and completely captivated by our work. It was a sad day for us when we lost our visionary leader in 1997.  He was able to lead the journey for only four years after which a young group of professionals had to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the legacy forward. He left us when BELA was just crawling; the responsibility of making it walk fell on us. However, our leader did not leave us completely unprepared! While it would be unthinkable for many organizations to survive after losing the founding leadership within such a short span of time, the BELA team survived and so did BELA. For the extreme devotion of some members of the BELA team and the solidarity, cooperation and generous support we received from the society, BELA not only survived but also managed to expand. What was left as a group of 7 has now grown to 35 (PICTURE group ). What was a Dhaka based group is now giving legal assistance to people through 7 focal points in the divisional headquarters. We no longer scavenge for issues from newspapers; our legal team spends busy hours attending community groups that approach us for legal assistance in redressing their grievances. Our legal battles led to progressive interpretation of many constitutional and legal provisions. It was in a case filed by BELA that locus standi was liberally interpreted so as to allow public interest litigation. Right to life was also interpreted in a broader way so as to include right to sound health environment. We saw persistent judicial activism in saving the rivers, forests and fertile agricultural lands. Through our cases the dormant legal regime on environment got activated and the culture of impunity challenged. We worked for constitutional recognition of environment and succeeded. We demanded stricter legal provisions for protecting the wetlands and succeeded. We struggled to amend the forest laws to empower people’s groups in afforestation programs and managed to bring in some desired changes. Our efforts led to the codification of legal requirements about public disclosure and consultation in the process of granting environmental clearance. When we started, we were introduced as a national level policy advocacy group. Twenty years down the road, we feel more comfortable to be introduced as a group that works with people and communities to promote environmental justice. To us, environmental justice means defending people’s right to participate in decision-making and protect resource bases that support their lives. It means getting protection against actions derogatory to right to life, livelihood, health and their spiritual, physical and material wellbeing. We uphold democratic values and seek to establish citizens’ democratic rights as they complement their right to a sound environment.      

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