Bangladesh's second largest export-oriented leather industry is under threat as it is facing international boycott of its products due to non-compliance of environmental issues by the leather processing factories. Despite such a threat to its very survival, why are owners of tannery factories shooting themselves in the foot? They have been constantly balking at shifting of their factories from their current location downtown Dhaka to a new spot at Savar. This is the blame laid at tannery owners, for which, government's relocation initiative has been limping from the start since 2002.
The tannery industries are not only risking losing their foreign buyers, they have also been polluting world's one of the highly populated cities, Dhaka, making it increasingly uninhabitable by humans.
There is apparently two-pronged blame game being played by the government and the Bangladesh Tanners Association (BTA) over the relocation of tannery factories from the Hazaribagh area to the designated Savar Leather Industrial Park, around 40 kilometres away from Dhaka. Both parties have been pushing the ball into each one's court shirking their responsibilities.
The government seems serious and is mounting tremendous pressure on the factory owners, but to no avail. Tanneries have remained there, though Industries Ministry has so far served more than two dozen notices including a recent 72-hour ultimatum to expedite their relocation. In addition, there are also nearly 200 letters directed to the tannery factories from the Ministry of Forest and Environment citing severe environmental impacts emanated from the factories on air, water and soil affecting all kinds of flora and fauna not only around their surroundings but also in the far flung areas because there is an estimated toxic fluids discharge of 22,000 litres per day to the Buriganga river and this discharge is carried by the river's water flows to the remote farm lands.
Sadly, all the warnings and cautionary notices have fallen on deaf ears and an estimated 200 tannery factories have remained brazenly unfazed as if there is nothing to make them move, whether it is the country's highest authority or the highest court.
Following a public interest litigation lodged in 2009, the High Court asked the government to transfer the hellish tannery factories from the heart of Dhaka to the proposed leather estate by 2010 or 'face shutdowns'. Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is acutely aware of the protection of environment, expressed her concerns on many occasions over the delay in the relocation of Hazaribagh tanneries.
Tannery owners' persistent intransigence has prompted Industries Ministry to issue a warning of cancelling the plot allotment to those who have not yet broken the ground for the construction of their factories in the new sites. Industries Minister Amir Hossain Amu warned tannery owners in a recent meeting in strong words of taking stern actions saying that no child's play would be tolerated if there is further delay in relocation".
The latest warning from the Industries Minister came at the Jatiya Sangsad when Amir Hussain said raw hide and skins will not allowed to enter the Hazaribagh area. This was preceded by his 72-hour ultimatum issued in January 10, 2016 which turned out to be an abject failure.
According to the latest reports, at the Leather Industrial Park, construction has started in around 100 plots with satisfactory work progress in only 30 locations, while at least 28 plots have remained vacant with no signs of construction works and these 28 allottees have probably been served notices to cancel their land allotments.
On the other hand, owners of tannery factories have cited a set of seemingly valid reasons to justify their stand on the relocation issue. The first and foremost is the absence of the central effluent treatment plant (CETP) at the new site at Savar and without it, shifting their plants is meaningless as pollution problem will stay the same. That is why BTA has dubbed Ministry of Industries' ultimatum 'laughingstock' and an eye-wash just to pass on its responsibility to others.
BTA also raises the issue of insufficient incentives provided by the government. Relocation requires at least three thousand crore taka while the government agrees to give a mere amount of Tk. 250 crore which is considered a cumin seed in the camel's mouth to cover the shifting costs. What is more unfortunate is that until now, only Tk.50 crore has been disbursed by the government, though it is pressing for immediate relocation, claims BTA. Tannery owners are demanding at least TK. 5,000 crore at single-digit interest rate and land price at the new site at TK.190 per sq ft which is now fixed at Tk. 425 per sq ft.
Pollution and unhealthy working condition in tannery factories at Hazaribagh which is home to country's around 90 percent leather processing plants are not only taking their toll on between 12,000 and 15, 000 tannery workers, they are also seriously harming the already overburdened city of over 20 million people and its adjacent water sources. According to the Ministry of Environment, Hazaribagh is the primary reason for the loss of ecosystem of one of the most important and historic rivers of Bangladesh, the Buriganga.
Apart from that, the highly potential Bangladesh leather industry is slowly losing its ground in the international markets as overseas buyers have started turning their back on Bangladeshi leather and leather goods citing highly hazardous working conditions at tanneries situated at Hazaribagh due to non-existence of a central treatment plant for the discharge of highly toxic chemicals and liquids. Some of the foreign buyers have already dropped their orders and many more are to follow the suit.
How much delay is needed to make polluted tannery factories move from Hazaribagh which means a thousand gardens, but now its name conjures up an image of 'hellish'-bagh. If it is delayed any longer, Bangladesh's leather and leather goods' export target of $5 billion by 2020 from its current $1.13 billion will be like chasing the rainbows and the damage to the environment and human lives will be irreparable.
Shamsul Huda is a senior Bangladeshi journalist based in Saudi Arabia