For the thousands who work and live in Hazaribagh, an old neighborhood of Dhaka, noxious smells and deadly poisons have long been part of everyday life. This is the center of the country’s profitable, multi-million dollar leather processing industry, and there are currently 195 tanneries in operation. Between them, they produce an estimated 20,000 cubic meters of waste a day, laden with chromium and at least 30 other toxins. Because there is no disposal system, the waste flows directly into the Buriganga River. But after years of environmental campaigns, High Court orders and a scathing 101-page report by global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, things finally look like changing. This year the Ministry of Industries announced the transfer of the tanneries to a new, purpose-built location outside the city, with suitable waste treatment facilities. “We have signed an agreement with the tannery owners to transfer to Savar and all of them have extended their support,” said Azaharul Islam, deputy chief engineer at the state-run Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation. Industries minister Dilip Barua said the relocation will be completed by the time the present government's tenure ends in 2013. The decision was possibly prompted by a directive from the European Union that Bangladesh would lose access to the European market if it failed to make the move. Campaigners are naturally delighted. “For many years the industry has not only put human health at grave risk but has also slowly poisoned the Buriganga River,” said activist Mihir Biswas. “It’s hoped that the river, which has experienced zero oxygen levels due to the pollution, will get back its life.” Apart from some lingering concerns that there are only 155 slots for 195 tanneries, local people are also welcoming the move. Swapna Das, a 23-year-old college girl who came to visit her relatives, said she fell sick within hours of entering the area. “I don’t know how the locals live here, but I can’t do it for more than two days,” she said.
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