When tanneries were initially allowed to operate in the Hazaribagh area, at the western part of the capital, close to Turag river, no planning had taken place. Now, the number of tanneries exceed 200, over the last six decades, because of reluctance of the ministries concerned and the related government agencies. Tanners wash, dry and process raw hide and skin in factories, and also in the open areas of Hazaribagh, which is a residential area adjacent to Lalbagh, Rayerbazar, Dhanmondi and Mohammadpur. The nearly 50-acre Hazaribagh area, has now become a chemically-contaminated hub, highly hazardous for residents, regardless of their standard of living, and especially so for poorer workers in the unhygienic factories. Reports claim that children who work and live in nearby slums suffer chronic health ailments.
All the factories of the export-oriented industrial area at Hazaribagh fall into red category but have been enjoying the highest level of impunity from authorities while flouting pollution, workplace safety and health regulations. Not a single factory in the country’s largest leather zone has an Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) to treat the highly-toxic water before release.
Locals in Hazaribagh have also taken for granted that they will have no opportunity to come out of the dire situation they are in, since the government has been reluctant to shift the tanneries from the city immediately – despite directives from the High Court and the relentless outcry of green groups and other activists at home and abroad. One may term it “reluctance,” since the process – undertaken in 2003 pushed by the court – has stumbled several times and sometimes midway. The construction of a central effluent treatment plant (CETP) to ensure that the factories at the new site in Hemayetpur near Savar would not discharge toxic waste water into the canals or rivers untreated. The process of implementing the CETP has so far taken three years to begin, while it would take at least one year to complete the construction.
Those who are carrying out businesses obviously have no regrets. Yet, the dwellers of Hazaribagh and the adjacent areas are simply helpless as they have been forced to use contaminated water, breathe polluted air and endure the horrible stench. All the negligence seems to be part of the destiny of local people, the environment and mainly the river Buriganga and those who live downstream it.
The surrounding ecosystem has been severely damaged, especially the water bodies. Fish and other organisms are barely present as the water is infected by poisonous chemicals and waste. The drains, canals and the river Buriganga – have lost the ability to host aquatic species long ago!
From the 1940s to the 1960s, the tanneries of erstwhile East Pakistan used to process raw hides and skins. After independence in 1971, the government formed The Tannery Corporation to convert some 30 tanneries left by non-Bengalis into finished leather manufacturing units. But this initiative failed.
The government then handed over the management of most of these tanneries to the state-run Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation (BCIC) and three of them to Bangladesh Freedom Fighters Welfare Trust. These authorities too failed to manage the tanneries. In 1982, the tanneries changed hands to private management.
In 1991, the question of relocating the tanneries began to be discussed among policy makers who first suggested Kanchpur as a possible location and then Sonargaon of Narayanganj. In 1993, it was decided that the industries would be shifted to Savar and an area of 17.30 acres was acquired.
At an inter-ministerial meeting held on August 20, 1998, regarding the relocation of tanneries. It was revealed that around 15,000 cubic metres of untreated waste was dumped into the river Buriganga. Around 70% of all polluted material dumped into this river comes from these tanneries.
Since 1991, dozens of meetings were held between the tanners and the government, but the owners refused to leave Hazaribagh. Finally, a 14-member committee headed by the joint secretary of the Ministry of Industries was held on September 25, 2008. The meeting resolved that all the tanneries shall shift from Hazaribagh within February 2010. The move is yet to be made.
On June 23, 2009, the high court asked the government to ensure relocation of tanneries from Hazaribagh by February 28 of the next year. The deadline has constantly been extended by the court upon request by the government and the tanners. The court also directed the Office of the Attorney General to negotiate compensation packages with tannery owners for the relocation of their industries and intervention in transferring bank liabilities of the tanners.
According to environmental law, the tanneries that fall in the red category must include an ETP. According to the law on fish and livestock feed for adulteration of feed products, one has to face up to one year’s imprisonment and fines up to Tk50,000.
The Savar Tannery Estate Project was initiated in January 2003 at a cost of Tk5.45bn. Initially, the project was set to be completed by December 2005. However, the construction schedule was later extended to June 2010. Infrastructure in the 200-acre land was scheduled to be completed in early 2010 where roughly 150 tannery units could be shifted. The industries ministry is implementing the project.
In 2003, the government and the tannery owners signed an agreement for the relocation of factories outside Dhaka. The government then pledged to provide financial assistance. Later in 2006, a government committee proposed Tk2.5bn as compensation as it estimated that the owners would incur a loss of Tk11bn.
Now, the owners are demanding the aid as they calculate that the relocation would cost them around Tk50bn.
In 2009, the current government said it would not bear the cost of relocation or the central effluent treatment plant (CETP).
However, the owners will have to pay the cost of CETP installation.
A tender for Tk1.5bn, which has now appreciated to Tk9.6bn to build the CETP is underway, but construction time is one year.
The tender was floated for the second time in February 2010. A Chinese company was selected and submitted the work order in 2012. However, the government is yet to approve the CETP project and allocate money.
Environmentalists argue that the location chosen for the tannery estate is inappropriate since a river is flowing nearby. They fear that this river, the adjacent crops and low-lying land could be harmed if the tanners do not follow the environmental rules.
Given the present sorry state of the leather factories operating in Hazaribagh, which is causing inconvenience to people, harming the environment and hindering the advancement of this industry, the government should look into the issue. The government, as the guardian of citizens, should orchestrate pro-people steps immediately while the public must act to compell tannery owners to shift the hazardous units, while lobbying the government to carrying out its duties properly. This menace cannot take place time and again.