After decades of persuasion, tanners, mostly based in Hazaribagh area of the city, have finally agreed to speed up relocating their industries from Dhaka to Savar by December next year.
The tanners, who exported leather goods and leather worth nearly US 1 billion dollars in the last fiscal year, had been resisting this relocation and demanding compensation. They feel that not only do they bring foreign exchange home, but also seasonally employ up to 60,000 people. But their core employment is less than 15,000.
They finally signed an agreement with Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) to relocate after the government agreed to provide them with Tk 250 crore as “compensation”. Additionally, the government will bear 80 percent of the cost of setting up a Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) to clean the hazardous waste generated by their industries.
The issue of relocation came back in 2001, when the High Court through a judgment asked the government to relocate the tanneries to save the city’s river and environment. The government initiated a project for relocation in 2003 to Savar equipped with a CETP, costing only Tk 175.75 crore.
But back then the government did not seem to be so serious about the relocation, while environmentalists kept on insisting that the government speed up the process. In 2010, when the government was nearly ready for it, the tanners resisted the move by obtaining a High Court stay order on the relocation saying that they needed time.
The delay hiked the CETP construction cost by 80 percent to Tk 829 crore from Tk 175.75 crore.
Till now nobody has held the tanners accountable for the damage they inflicted on the nation — and particularly on the capital city.
The tanneries in Hazaribagh emit daily about 21,600 cubic metres of environmentally hazardous toxic waste, and 300 different harmful chemicals, including chromium, sulphur and ammonium, according to the Department of Environment.
This waste disposal going on for decades has killed the 20 kilometer-long Buriganga river — the very foundation of Dhaka city. Along with its death, thousands of fishermen have lost their livelihood — and nobody has ever tried to rehabilitate them.
Nobody has even assessed the economic cost of killing the river and polluting the community.
For the last few decades, no fish or other aquatic animals can be sustained in the Buriganga as the water lacks oxygen for the most part of the year. Watersheds around the Hazaribagh area, including canals and wetlands are also polluted, making the community environment stinky.
The soil and water of Hazaribagh area is so polluted with around toxic chemicals like chromium, lead, arsenic would remain in the atmosphere for next 100 years.
A study Institute of Water Modeling (IWM) and World Bank in 2007, revealed even a more dangerous findings that the groundwater aquifer has been contaminated.
Just to revive the river, the government had taken a Tk 1040 crore project two years back. The project that would have pumped fresh water from the Jamuna river, however, could not make much progress due to lack of funds. Due to this failure, the project cost has gone up to Tk 1500 crore. This money will be provided by the public.
The government implemented another Tk 50 crore project to clean Buriganga sludge and awareness campaign.
On top of these, as the water of the Buriganga is undrinkable, Dhaka Wasa is spending extra money to fetch water from other distant rivers to supply water for the city dwellers.
According to Dhaka Wasa managing director engineer Taqsem A Khan, WASA has taken up construction of four new water treatment plants using water from the Meghna and the Shitalakhya, which would enable them to supply 70 percent of total city water supply at the cost of $1.8 billion in the next seven years. This will significantly reduce our dependence on ground water.
Currently, it takes around Tk 11 to treat one thousand liters of water, a figure that could go up in future due to increasing pollution, the experts fear.
While the tanners boast of employment, the World Health Organization (WHO) says, those who work in tanneries suffer from gastrointestinal, dermatological, respiratory and cacogenic diseases.
According to a survey (SEHD, 2005) at least 90 percent of the Hazaribagh tannery workers die before they reach the age of 50 due to unhygienic working-environment.
While fetching millions of dollars through exports, the tanners have never been known to be involved in any Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to either help workers or to partly restore the environment.
Tannery owners agree that they have been partly responsible for polluting the Buriganga River since its inception in1950. They argue that dumping human excreta caused more damage to the river.
“So, we want to complete the relocation as soon as possible,” said Md Abdul Hai, general secretary of Bangladesh Tanners Association.
The “Dhaka leather estate” has been built under the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) at Savar, 15 kilometers off present location.
The first factory was set up by one Noor Bhai in Hazaribagh in 1947. The number of large and small tanneries reached 70 by 1971. Now around 90 percent of total 207 tanneries are operating from Hazaribagh without any pollution treatment or taking any social responsibility for the damage they are inflicting on the people and the environment.
Source: The Daily Star