While the readymade garments sector in Bangladesh has drawn international ire for lack of safety through the Rana Plaza collapse and other accidents, another sector that is spewing death on a much grander scale, i.e. the tannery industry, thrives in relative obscurity. Yes, we are talking about Hazaribagh where an estimated 200 or so tanneries constitute the backbone of the leather industry contributing about US$1billion to the annual export basket and deemed to be the next RMG-like miracle for the economy. “Hazaribagh” means “thousands of gardens”! It is anything but pristine, rather a wasteland of toxic chemicals; (according to recent estimates) factories located there dump around 21,000 cubic metres of untreated waste into the Buriganga River on a daily basis. The Buriganga happens to be Dhaka's main source of water.
Looking beyond the fact that workers engaged in the industry operate with little protective gear to safeguard them from hazardous chemicals such as chromium, environmentalist groups and experts alike point out that since untreated chemical waste is making its way into the principal river that feeds Dhaka, the surge in respiratory problems, skin ailments and the upsurge in cancer cases is only to be expected. And although there are laws that specifically prohibit the operation of a tannery factory without a treatment plant, there is evidence to suggest that the factories in Hazaribagh do not bother with such rules and authorities turn a blind eye to what goes on there.
According to one study in 2014 carried out by the Department of Environmental Science, Bangladesh Agriculture University (S.H. Tinni, M.A. Islam, K. Fatima and M.A. Ali), the effects of such dumping are multifarious. First, there is the “bad smell” factor for Hazaribagh residents. The use of some 40 different types of metal and acid in the raw hide processing, 40 per cent of which is absorbed into the leather whilst the rest is discarded into surrounding water bodies. This leads to environmental degradation. Other hazardous toxins used in the production process include: Sulphuric acid, Formic acid, Caustic soda, Soda ash, Arsenic Sulphate, Potash, etc. Then we come to human diseases. About a third of the people (living in the vicinity of Hazaribagh) suffer from various types of skin diseases as the water supply is contaminated. With black sludge flowing freely into the drainage system, high content of untreated chemicals find their way into nearby streams, ultimately ending up in the Buriganga River, and thereby affecting the greater populace of Dhaka city. Both livestock and fisheries production in the area have taken a nosedive in the area as livestock fodder becomes toxic and oxygen levels in water bodies like the Buriganga decrease.
The first serious initiative to relocate Hazaribagh tanneries outside Dhaka came through a High Court order in 2009. The aim was simple; to make an environmentally-friendly tannery zone that would protect Dhaka city's water supply from sustained contamination. This is 2016, and the industry has not budged an inch. We are living with an industrial hub in the heart of the city that serves as a magnet for rural migrants who live in squalid circumstances in the slums that litter the area. We have been led to believe by the government that the industrial estate that has been built in Savar is practically complete, but transfer has not been made possible due to reluctance of factory owners. According to a report titled 'relocation of tanneries' published in this paper on January 30, we get a whole different story.
In the midst of the repeated deadlines over the years, we were informed on January 9 that unless tannery owners relocated their factories to Savar within 72 hours, authorities would close down errant factories. The 72-hour ultimatum came and went and the deadline so forcefully declared has been extended to March 1. We find that facilities in Savar are far from complete and this includes the central effluent treatment plant (CETP). Indeed, we find that “out of some 150 plot owners, only about 30 have made some notable progress in setting up their establishments” and given the rate of progress, authorities have surmised that only about 30 factories will be in a position to relocate within the next two months. So, why have we been led to believe that tanners will relocate to Savar by March 1?
Authorities continue to insist that work on CETP is nearly concluded and will come into operation once the bulk of the tanneries relocate. Is it even remotely plausible that the rest of the industry will relocate within the new deadline period? Indeed, if we are to take at face value what a former president of Bangladesh Finished Leather Goods Manufacturers' Association has stated recently that given present realities, tanners will be able to relocate by June, precisely who is going to foot the bill of Tk 3,500 crore to complete relocation? Apparently the government has coughed up Tk 250 crore and hence the whole process is, literally, up a gum tree. And while all that is going on, public health of the 15 million or more residents will continue to suffer. Cases of serious ailments amongst the young and the old will continue to pile up. Diagnostic centres will keep making a killing as the number of patients climb exponentially. Because authorities have shown little regard for the physical well being of its citizens, to expect a change of heart would perhaps be asking for too much; but we must continue to believe that public health must take precedence over profits.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.