Accusations and counter accusations between the leather industry and authorities continue about the state of infrastructure in the Savar Tannery Estate. With Eid-ul-Azha a mere month away, the fact that the central effluent treatment plant (CETP) is a long way from being fully operational is going to have a detrimental effect on the sector. The Chinese company contracted to work on the CETP has apparently asked for a further four months to complete the work. It is not just the environmental decay of the Dhaleshwari River that is being witnessed here. Reports have also emerged that only 20 out of 155 factories at the Estate have received gas connections for factory operations since tanners moved there from Hazaribagh.
One doesn't know what will become of the estimated four million raw hides and skins that will require to be preserved. The Ministry of Commerce has apparently paved the way for 0.5 million metric tonnes of salt to be imported but there is concern that it may not arrive in time. There is also the question of lack of adequate water supply to production units, where only a third of units have received access to water. We are baffled as to how so many prerequisites, ranging from the preservation of hides to the production of leather, were left in such a state of disarray in the leather estate when moving tanners to the new estate.
It is easy to point the finger at the tannery industry for the destruction of the environment but the setting up of key infrastructure is the responsibility of authorities. The CETP, gas connections, making available raw materials for preserving cattle hide—these and others fall under the purview of the various ministries and utility companies. It must be remembered that the leather industry represents the second largest export sector in the country after readymade apparels. That Bangladesh earned USD 1.16 billion in leather goods and footwear in fiscal 2015–2016 is largely centred on the industry being able to process raw hides around Eid-ul-Azha. This year, it is highly suspect that tanners will be able to do that given the state of an incomplete tannery estate.
The relocation process itself was painful for the industry. When authorities snapped utility connections to factories in Hazaribagh for 19 days, the tanners apparently suffered a loss of Tk15 billion. The strong arm tactic was supported by us in the media on the premise that factories were refusing to relocate. We were under the illusion that the Savar Estate was all but ready and it was the stubbornness of the tanners that was standing in the way of relocation. Only now has it become apparent that things are hardly as rosy as painted by authorities. Have we, in effect, shifted the pollution from one river to another, i.e. from Buriganga to the Dhaleshwari? Today, as things stand, the tanners' association is justified in their demands for the setting up of CETP, Chrome Recover Units and Dumping Yard at the estate and of course the demand for utility connections that include power and water.
As reported by Bangla daily Prothom Alo on April 28, 2017, we wonder why there is inaction by authorities despite a High Court directive three months ago to provide gas connections within 15 days of factories moving to the Savar Tannery Estate. The war of words between the utility provider and the tanners has been going on over this period about which party is to blame about getting infrastructure in place to receive gas connections, and the clock keeps ticking.
While policymakers have earmarked the leather industry to earn USD 5 billion by 2021, the present state of getting the industrial estate in full running condition is far from satisfactory. There is talk of a government roadmap to make the industry eco-friendly and that journey is to begin at Savar. Given our experience of facilities being made ready to get the industrial estate up and running, the “eco-friendly” aspect is some way off. For starters, precisely when will the infrastructure be ready? Even if the salt arrives on time for the preservation process, how are the industrial units supposed to operate their plants without gas connections? Will adequate water supply be made available? Those factories that have gas connection will probably be able to meet their orders, but what about the rest? These are all valid questions and we are a month away from Eid-ul-Azha. Exports in the current fiscal will likely be hit hard and this time the onus will be squarely on the shoulders of authorities for a failure to plan and make operational the industrial estate on time.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.