The leather sector still bears the stigma of being a big polluter
Tanneries relocated to Savar Leather Industrial Park, built on 200 acres of land, continue to be a source of pollution due mainly to the delayed implementation of central effluent treatment plant (CETP) and lack of a dumping station.
Under pressure from local and global rights group and foreign buyers of Bangladeshi leather goods, the government one and a half decades ago took initiatives to relocate tanneries from Hazaribag in the capital to Savar.
The move was aimed at making the country’s billion-dollar industry compliant and environment-friendly, saving the Burganga river from pollution caused by toxic chemicals discharged from the Hazaribagh-based tanneries.
But after such a long time, the leather sector still bears the stigma of being a big polluter.
The lack of full implementation of CETP resulted in solid wastes of tanneries being dumped in the open and untreated water of the leather establishments discharged into the nearby river as spotted during a recent visit.
The relocation and present status
In 2003, the government took a step to relocate tanneries from Hazaribag to Savar to make the leather sector compliant. As part of the move, the industries ministry allocated industrial plots to 155 tanners at the (SLIP).
After several extensions on relocation, the government in April 2017 had cut power and gas connections to the tanneries at Hazaribagh to compel the owners to relocate to (SLIP).
As of today, 122 tanneries out of 155 started tanning in the industrial park on a limited scale as they are yet to complete full-fledged construction at the new site.
Solid waste management a big concern
Though the CEPT is largely operational, solid waste management still remains a great concern for lack of a dumping station at SLIP, holding back on becoming a fully compliant sector.
During a recent visit to the Savar leather park, Dhaka Tribune found solid wastes are being dumped in an open space, spreading foul smell and polluting air quality in the surrounding areas.
“After the relocation, it was expected that the sector will get a compliant industrial zone, but it did not happen yet,” Md Mizanur Rahman, treasurer of Bangladesh Tanners Association (BTA), told Dhaka Tribune.
Though the CEPT is operation but problems centring the sludge, a byproduct of ETP, and solid waste management pose a great concern for the sector and environment, Rahman adds.
Currently, solid waste is managed in landfill system within the park and the government assured of allocating more land to dump solid waste which is not a sustainable solution, says the association leader.
Talking on the solid waste management, Jitendranath Pal, project director of Savar Leather Industrial Park, says the government has selected three sites at the Park for setting up a dumping station for solid waste management.
Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology will prepare design of the proposed station, the construction of which is expected to be completed by March 2020, he adds.
About 99% work of CETP is completed but there is a need for fine tuning, while automation for monitoring is very close to end.
“By the next week, we will receive the equipment to finish the unfinished work and by the end of December the CETP will be fully completed,” he assures.
Cash crunch hit the sector hard
In completing the construction of factories, tanners had to spend a huge amount of money and are now facing fund shortage to spend more, says Md Shakawat Ullah, the general secretary of BTA.
On the other hand, tanners cannot take loans from banks as they are yet to get land registration approvals from the government, says Shakawat.
In borrowing money from banks against any factory, land ownership through registration is mandatory, he explains.
However, the government blamed the tannery owners for delay in land registration as they did not pay the land prices to the government.
“Only seven to eight tanners paid installments of land prices, while the others are yet to pay. That is why, we cannot complete land deeds to provide ownerships to the tanners,” says Jitendranath Pal.
In May, the government reset prices of land at Tk471 for per square foot including a 20% additional cost for CETP installation.
Earlier, the government had fixed the price of land at Tk191 for per square foot of land at Savar.
Image crises adversely impacted exports
Export earnings from the country's leather sector, the second largest earner of foreign currencies after apparel items, witnessed a 6.06% fall to $1.01 billion in the last fiscal year, as non-compliance in environmental issues holds back foreign buyers.
“We are not environmentally compliant. This is because of the absence of a full-fledged operation of CETP. Moreover, the Leather Working Group (LWG) certification, which makes easier to sell goods to the global buyers, is yet to endorse the relocated leather park at Savar for the overall lacking,” Md Saiful Islam, managing director of PICARD Bangladesh Limited, says.
For the lack of proper compliance, especially in environmental issues, Bangladeshi leather goods makers are not getting the certificates from the LWG, which assesses environmental compliance and performance capabilities of leather manufacturers, he adds.
"As a result, export earnings from the sector experienced downtrend," he explains.
Bringing back buyers is a big challenge
Over the relocation and non-compliance in the sector, a good number of buyers refrained from buying goods from Bangladesh, Md Mizanur Rahman, executive director of Samata Leather, says.
“Restoring buyers’ confidence and bringing them back to buy from Bangladesh is a big challenge right now for the industry,” Mizanur adds.
To this end, the government has to make the sector compliant without any delay and brand Bangladesh as environment friendly manufacturing hub for leather goods, he says further.