Published: Friday, May 10, 2013

Special Feature

A WORSENING WASTELAND

Laundrymen, helpless to relocate, use contaminated canal water; they too urge the government for help. Photo: Prabir Das

Laundrymen, helpless to relocate, use contaminated canal water; they too urge the government for help. Photo: Prabir Das

The tannery capital in the city’s Hazaribagh area has been hogging the headlines for more than a decade now. It is widely known how this industry is a severe threat to all elements of our environment. The Buriganga river alone reportedly takes in 21 thousand cubic metres of untreated tannery wastes via scattered channels every day. The unabated pollution in the Buriganga river does not need new description as its black water has been a clear manifestation of its terrible state for more than a decade, an indicator that has failed to call for any solution.

A little rain and the westward wind spread the nauseating smells of Hazaribagh as far as Dhanmondi and Mohammadpur. To spare the environment, green activists, the government and even the tannery owners themselves have been vocal, apparently, about shifting around 150 tanneries to the 200-acre leather estate in Savar after a High Court verdict in 2001. Due to the uncertainty about bearing the cost of the project, the relocation had been delayed for more than 10 years since missing the deadline in 2003.

Plastic and rubber piled up for 'recycling.' Photo: probir das

Plastic and rubber piled up for ‘recycling.’ Photo: probir das

After considerable foot-dragging, it is still uncertain who will bear the expenditure of shifting the factories to Savar and the cost of setting up an Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) for treating the tannery waste.

Shaheen Ahmed, president of Bangladesh Tanners Association (BTA), claimed the government in 2003, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that said the government would bear the cost. “As per the MoU, the government should take the responsibility of funding. We do want to leave, the European Union (EU) has been mounting pressure; there is no way to build an environment-friendly tannery industry here. If the government cannot relocate us, it’s their failure,” he says.

Reports say the cost of the project has multiplied almost five times to around 827.99 crore by now. Industries Minister Dilip Barua says, the tanners are supposed to bear the cost according to a MoU signed in 2007, “They are quite aware of it but they have been defending themselves saying the government was supposed to take the charge of construction alone.”

Green activist MA Matin, general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), says the government’s proposition to bear the cost in 2003 was not approved by the Executive Committee of National Economic Council (Ecnec). “The tanners association claims to have not known this and keeps referring to the 2003 MoU and that the government must take the charge of relocation costs and other expenditures.”

Cattle skin being melted 'to produce gum for shoes' the in open air. Photo: Probir Das

Cattle skin being melted ‘to produce gum for shoes’ the in open air. Photo: Probir Das

The central ETP project, intended to be completed in 2014, is almost halted now without approval from the Planning Commission and Ecnec. The government has decided to invest in the project provided that the BTA pays back the cost in instalments in 15 years. An engineer at Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC), requesting anonymity, says “Unless the BTA gives their consent regarding paying back the amount taken as a loan, the Planning Commission will not approve the government’s decision to invest and the project will not move to Ecnec.”

Peripheral Businesses: Unremitting Pollution
The delay in relocation, meanwhile, is taking its toll on a number of issues. Apart from the undiminished pollution caused by the tanneries, the peripheral businesses that have grown in Hazaribagh have also been harming the environment. It employs a huge number of workers who work under extremely hazardous and unhygienic conditions – a clear threat to their health and safety.

Photo: Prabir Das

Photo: Prabir Das

To have an idea of how the tannery area looks like, we take a tour stretching from around Rayerbazar Martyr Graveyard to Lalbagh in Old Dhaka. The air is heavy. Tannery workers are seen laying out small pieces of soaked cloth-like material along the water bodies. They say these are low quality leather they are commissioned by the factory to dry out in the sun. One of them says they earn 120 taka per rickshaw-van and one can dry out as much as three vans full of leather a day. The acrid smell should be shocking for a newcomer in this area but the people distributing it and the bystanders moving around seem to be quite indifferent.

Along the road towards Lalbagh, there are women working behind heaps of plastic materials, cutting used shoes and sandals, mostly made of rubber and plastic, into small pieces. They inform these materials are sold to factories for some reason they are unaware of. They get up to 3,500 taka a month for the task. An onlooker informs these materials are ‘recycled’ in factories and used to produce household goods like plastic buckets.

Up the road to Lalbagh, there seems to be another exemplary instance of ‘recycling’. Piles of shredded rubber-like pieces are being shoved into huge metal boxes over large stoves in the open air. The stuff is apparently melting into something else, that’s all the workers in charge say through the thick fog over the stove. There is no supervisor around for further queries but a person requesting anonymity informs that these are cattle skins being melted to produce gums for shoes.

Some of these peripheral businesses at Hazaribagh mostly rely on the leftovers from the tanneries. Using tannery-waste for producing poultry and fish feed has proved to be most threatening according to scientific studies and investigation. A Star report in 2010 cited a 2007 study by Dhaka University and Bangladesh Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) that found high quantities of chromium in eggs and poultry meat. By entering into the food chain through tannery-wastes and then feeds, heavy metals such as chromium may cause cancer or damage the kidney or the liver, says the report.

(left) Women handle tannery waste to be used as raw material for fish and poultry feed., (right) Tannery labourers dry pieces of leather in the open.

(left) Women handle tannery waste to be used as raw material for fish and poultry feed., (right) Tannery labourers dry pieces of leather in the open. Photos: Prabir Das

Confirming the study, Abu Anis Jahangir, director of BCSIR Laboratories, says that there has been no further research into this since 2007. “We also don’t know whether anyone else conducted any research about the present state of using tannery-wastes for poultry and fish feed,” he says.

In 2010, the High Court promptly directed the government to terminate such enterprises at Hazaribagh that use raw tannery-waste for producing poultry and fish feed after the Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB) filed a petition. However, as recently as in February this year, photos of such materials being laid out at Hazaribagh was seen in newspaper reports. Presumably, these materials are still out there, being processed in the open.

Halfway to Lalbagh from the Martyr’s Graveyard, some pitch black organic materials are seen over thin plastic sheets. Its grimy appearance and overpowering stench outdo anything we have come across so far; trying not to breathe appears to be the only way to filter out the smell. The labourers in charge of distributing this noxious material are women, working indifferently with bare hands and without a mask.

Busy in supervision, the owner of this business claims, “These are raw materials for fish feed, prepared from the leftovers gathered from fish markets.” Requesting anonymity, he informs the site employs 24 labourers while each earns up to 5000 taka a month. A site can produce up to one ton of raw material in three days, resulting in a monthly profit of above 20,000 taka. He defends his position saying, “Bangladesh is a poor country, you have to understand. We are trying to create room for employment.”

When asked about the wastes and such horrible working conditions, the tanners’ association president Shaheen Ahmed says, “Around 70 percent of this waste is being taken by the board factories in Narsingdi. It may be the rest is collected by some unscrupulous businessmen for producing feeds”. Industries Minister Dilip Barua, however, thinks otherwise. “These materials are meant to be decomposed but the tanneries sell these materials out for earning extra,” he says.

Golam Rabbani, director general of the Department of Environment (DoE), comments that the DoE has been enforcing appropriate punishment to those who ruin the environment. “Punishments and fines are not the ultimate solution,” he says. He refers that the industries ministry has to take care of the situation.

A child unknowingly puts tannery waste in her mouth. The photo was taken from Beribadh area in February.  Photo: Prabir Das

A child unknowingly puts tannery waste in her mouth. The photo was taken from Beribadh area in February. Photo: Prabir Das

As we get close to Lalbagh, an array of clothes hang on bamboos along the canals catch our attention. A few laundrymen are busy spreading out wet clothes that have been supposedly washed using the jet-black canal water. An irked laundryman says, “We are too poor to relocate and too helpless to find an alternative source of water.” These people seem helpless against the polluted resource the environment has to offer for their small business. But it is a clear evidence of how the delay in relocating the tanneries has affected the periphery and contaminated other livelihoods.

The laundryman continues, “We have been doing this for years, we don’t know anything else; we can’t switch to something else for a living, nor can we threaten anyone to stop polluting the water. If the government does not take steps in relocating the tanneries, we will soon be out of business.”

Green activist MA Matin thinks the government has failed to exert adequate force on the tannery owners for relocating. “Whenever the HC date closes in, the BTA appears to be apathetic. The government, instead of being rigid against the BTA, appeals at the HC to delay the date,” he says.

“The government can be stern in implementing the existing laws that may force the owners to move to Savar. An existing law already says that such industries cannot be run without ETPs. So the government can exert pressure on them on this ground,” he adds.

It is already a matter of grave concern that pollution in Hazaribagh is beyond limits. The government and the tanners have been blaming each other for the uncertainty about settling the funding for tannery relocation and the construction of the CETP. While the relocation process is caught in a bureaucratic knot, health and safety hazards have multiplied. Meanwhile, the peripheral businesses have largely grown in this area, particularly those depending on tannery wastes. The government should give a second thought about the peripheral businesses and that these must be closed down if we want the area saved from becoming an abandoned wasteland.