A laborer mixes cement on a plot of land where a tannery is being built at the Savar industrial estate (photo by Will Baxter)
Thirteen years after 155 toxic leather tanneries were first ordered to relocate from the Hazaribagh area of Dhaka to a site on the outskirts of the city, there are finally signs that the move is under way — albeit, slowly.
Over the years, multiple deadlines have been set by Bangladesh’s High Court yet tannery owners have been allowed to ignore these edicts without facing any tangible consequences. Now the government has announced a new deadline of March 2015 and there are indications it is serious this time.
On World Environment Day earlier this month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina issued a stern warning to tannery owners in Hazaribagh, declaring that their businesses would be “shut down” if they failed to transfer to the Savar relocation site “on time”.
When ucanews.com visited Savar in early June, about 10 tanneries were in the initial stages of construction. Laborers at the site said they commenced work in mid-May.
These developments have been met with guarded praise and a degree of skepticism from environmental monitors and rights groups, who have expressed fear that Savar could end up as polluted as Hazaribagh if not properly regulated.
The key to making Savar an environmentally friendly site will be the mandatory use and management of the Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP), where all forms of tannery waste are to be treated, according to several experts who spoke with ucanews.com.
SM Imamul Huq, a professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Environment at the University of Dhaka and the founding director of the Bangladesh-Australia Center for Environmental Research, said that at present the vast majority of tanneries in Bangladesh “are not using any effluent treatment plants, particularly the tanneries in Hazaribagh. So they are discharging their effluents in the drains, it is going to the nearby [Buriganga] river, and into the nearby fields.”
“Because of their indiscriminate disposal they are destroying the nearby environment,” Huq said. “We have found an accumulation of a particularly high amount of sodium and some other heavy metals [in Hazaribagh].”
The government bodies overseeing the relocation claim that the CETP will ensure that similar problems do not occur in Savar.
Md. Sirajul Haider, project director for the Tannery Industrial Estate, under the Bangladesh Small & Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) within the Ministry of Industries, said that "every aspect" of waste management had been considered by the government and addressed by the treatment facilities being built “so that no other pollution occurs after the completion of the CETP”.
“I think that we can assume that there will be less possibility [of pollution],” said Haider, adding that the CETP is scheduled to be operational by March 2015 and completely finished by June.
A man works at a tannery in the Hazaribagh district of Dhaka (photo by Will Baxter)
However, monitors point out that simply building a treatment facility will not remedy the problem.
“Everyone in government and industry thinks that the solution is a technical one, i.e. build a CETP, not a governance one, i.e. laws enforced,” said Richard Pearshouse, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Far more important than a CETP is the rigorous application of Bangladeshi law to the tanneries in Hazaribagh and, following relocation, in Savar.”
“Some factories [in other industries] operating elsewhere in Savar do not have effluent treatment plants, or turn them off to save on costs. So there is a very real possibility that relocating Hazaribagh tanneries will increase the rate of environmental pollution,” said Pearshouse. “The only way to avoid this is to make sure the [CETP] at the Savar leather estate will actually be used, which in turn requires regular and rigorous monitoring. Issues like poor health and safety conditions of workers and hazardous child labor won't be solved by a technical fix.”
Tanneries should be “fined if they breach emissions standards for liquid or solid waste, or airborne emissions and closed down if they repeatedly breach these standards”, he added.
Enforcement is where the Bangladesh government has traditionally fallen short according to Philip Gain, director of the Society for Environment and Human Development in Dhaka.
“We don't see environmental laws implemented” where tanneries are concerned, said Gain, adding that far too often such laws are “rampantly violated” by businesses in the leather industry.
“The department of environment has some magisterial power to bring the violators to the book, but it is relaxed about the tanneries,” he said.
According to Huq, in terms of political weight some tannery owners are “stronger than the government” and as a result, do not feel compelled to follow environmental codes.
“The businessmen are very much careless. They don’t care about [laws] because of the money [they are making]. Sometimes they bribe, sometimes they convince the politicians”, he said.
A couple walks up an embankment from the Dhaleshwari River on the edge of the new industrial estate (photo by Will Baxter)
Both Huq and Gain said they are “concerned” about the fate of the Dhaleshwari River, which passes close to the Savar relocation site.
“When all of these factories are relocated, the central effluent treatment plant must work. That must happen. Otherwise the [Dhaleshwari] River will run into risk,” said Gain. “If the CETP is not functioning, [the tanneries] will immediately be dumping their waste into the river.”
If that happens, the Dhaleshwari River could suffer “the same fate” as the Buriganga, said Huq.
“Environmental regulations must be implemented,” said Gain. “There should be no exemption for these tanneries, like what you see now.”
However, Haider is confident that everything will run smoothly at Savar. A government “management body” has been formed to ensure compliance by the tanneries and the CETP will be capable of handling both solid and liquid waste, he said.
“Tannery sludge will be used in a power generation system” to create electricity, and “treated water” will be disposed of in the “nearby Dhaleshwari River,” he explained.
On this point, Huq still has some reservations and says it would be optimal if “treated effluents did not go directly into the river.”
“Even if it is treated, it has to be diverted to some other reservoir. And then use it for agriculture purposes if it is suitable. But I wouldn’t like that it goes directly into a river again,” Huq said.
Chemical waste from a tannery is dumped directly into a drain in Hazaribagh (photo by Will Baxter)
After more than a decade, why is the move inching forward now?
“Over the years, pressure has been slowly building from local environmental organizations, international human rights groups and even some international leather companies who source from Bangladesh,” said Pearshouse.
The relocation has “taken so long because the two government ministries involved — Environment and Industries — decided not to enforce labor and environmental laws in Hazaribagh, so there was no incentive for tanneries to abide by the law. For their part, the tannery associations delayed the move as a negotiating tactic to extract the most favorable economic terms possible from the government. They repeatedly demanded more compensation from the government, more land at the relocation site, interest-free loans from the banks, etc.”
“The clock's still running — who knows how long it will take the bulk of the tanneries to relocate?” he said, adding that this is the first sign that Hazaribagh tanneries are actually prepared to abide by the High Court's 2001 order.
Gain agreed that the recent progress had only come about “after a long battle”.
The tannery owners “are political elites and business elites, so they want to maximize their profits [and] their benefits from the relocation”, said Gain, who conceded that some of the owners’ demands were indeed for “practical reasons”.
“Their facilities have become old and the machines are very old, they look very primitive. If they go to a new site, they need to replace their machinery, and then they need money, they need loans, they need to purchase things overseas.”
M Abu Taher, chairman of the Bangladesh Finished Leather, Leathergoods and Footwear Exporters’ Association — who is also chairman of Ruma Leather Industries Ltd and chairman of Fortuna Leather Craft Ltd and Fortuna Shoes — said that government “indecision” and “bureaucracy” were to blame for the repeated delays.
Now, though, he says the relocation is gaining momentum.
“I am very optimistic. It has to happen. The Prime Minister announced if within the time nobody goes we will all be shut down. I believe that the Prime Minister [means it]. We have to go. We cannot spoil the river."
“But we are having some financial problems. We need finance,” he said, returning to the oft-repeated plea of tannery owners.
Taher explained that because the tanneries are still operational in Hazaribagh owners cannot yet sell that land to generate capital.
“Give us sub-term loans so that we can do our construction and also [purchase] new drums and some wanted machines, so that the new Savar tanneries site can be much better,” he said.
In May, Bangladesh’s fiscal leather exports surpassed the US$1 billion mark for the first time in history, and the industry is expected to make its year-end target of $1.25 billion.
“Like garments, this is also one of the vital sectors here. It will be the second largest sector in the future if we can shift from Hazaribagh,” said Haider.
However, major brands continue to be wary of being associated with leather sourced from Hazaribagh, said Taher.
“I am in the shoe industry, OK. We cannot sell shoes to the branded buyers. They will not buy. America is not coming to buy leather. Nobody will come if we do not change our attitude,” he said.
“I need positive publicity for Bangladesh.”
Workers search for usable bits of animal hide that have been discarded from tanneries in Hazaribagh (photo by Will Baxter)
The new city by the dead river
While there has been much talk about relocation, little has been said by the government regarding a clean-up of Hazaribagh or the Buriganga River after the tanneries leave.
“The government has yet to recognize the need to clean up the area,” said Pearshouse. “Remediation should begin with excavating and removing contaminated matter in surface ponds, large dumps of tannery waste, and the main drainage canals.”
It would take a “huge amount of money” to clean up Hazaribagh, said Huq. “The quality of the [Buriganga] river is so bad. It’s like a big drain. It is a dead river. The high amount of organic matter coming from the hides is creating an anaerobic situation. The plants cannot grow. Oxygen is lacking.”
“Reviving this river will take a minimum of another 200 years,” he said, explaining that even then a “natural” process would require a constant flow of water from upstream.
“Ultimately you need a flow of fresh water around the year and we are not getting it except during the rainy season,” he said.
“But cleaning only this river will not be good enough because this is linked with other rivers and those rivers are also being polluted because there are industries growing around them,” he added.
Taher said he did not anticipate that that it would be difficult to clean up Hazaribagh.
“We want to make Hazaribagh a well-planned new city. That can be beautiful housing area,” said Taher, adding that in his view, the toxic soil could simply be removed.
Gain said he had also heard about these real estate ambitions. But he was far less optimistic.
“Hazaribagh is in a horrible state. It’s filled with garbage [and] toxic materials that have piled up for decades. Those should not be left like that. The government should immediately set up a commission or team to assess what has been stockpiled and what could be the consequences if it is not cleaned up,” said Gain.
“It is the government’s responsibility, but also the owners have a responsibility to play their part in the whole thing. Each tannery has a responsibility to clean up the mess they have created.”