The pollution level in tanneries at Hazaribagh is rising every day, causing many diseases to spread around the area. Experts say that if the tanneries are not relocated soon there will be a medical catastrophe in the region. While deadlines for executing the High Court orders on relocation of tanneries have already passed several times with the government repeatedly asking for extension, new questions are rising on a realistic solution for this problem.
In 2003 the government initiated a project for relocation to “Savar Leather Estate” in Savar. During this time two of the country’s main tannery associations agreed with the government that some 150 member-tanneries in Hazaribagh would relocate to a site outside of the city. The government agreed to compensate these tanneries for some of the cost and planned to prepare a relocation site in Savar by 2005, although completion of the site has been delayed numerous times.
The initial deadline for relocation of the more than 40 year old tanneries from Hazaribagh to Savar Leather Industrial Estate (SLIE) was June 2004, which was extended to December 2005. After a public interest litigation was lodged, the High Court in June 2009 asked the government to relocate the tanneries from Dhaka to a proposed leather estate at Savar by February 28, 2010 or face shutdowns. The government has repeatedly sought more time due to multifarious reasons which included among others establishment of Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP), 2.50 billion BDT compensation for tanners and fund constraints. Last year the government announced a plan to relocate the tanneries by December 2014, upon the failure to meet this deadline, now the Industry Ministry now that the relocation would be implemented by June 2016 as the project has recently been revised by the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) at a cost of 10.78 billion BDT.
Hazaribagh’s 220 tanneries discharge some 21,600 cubic meters of liquid waste and 88 tonnes of solid waste per day, posing a serious threat to the livelihood of some 100,000 people and prompting observers to deem it to be on the brink of an environmental disaster (Department of Environment, Bangladesh).
International rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) repeatedly urged leather buyers not to purchase leather goods from tanneries at Hazaribagh in Bangladesh, as they do not abide by health and environmental laws. On 11 March 2012, the Environment Ministry signed a contract with a Chinese joint venture called JLEPCL and DCL to construct an effluent treatment plant within 15 months, but those 15 months have come and gone and no effluent treatment plant is yet installed. Regarding the delay of setting up the CETP at the leather zone, Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) Chairman Shyam Sunder Sikder said they would approve the design by next two days which was a major concern of the contractor company JLEPCL-DCL Recently the Industry Ministry asked JLEPCL-DCL to resume construction of the central effluent treatment plant in a week, or otherwise warned the company with “punitive action” if it delays work.
According to BSCIC officials, the cost of setting up CETP was only 0.84 billion BDT in 2004 which is now increased to more than 6 billion BDT. BSCIC chairman Shyam Sunder Sikder told The Independent that they had already completed the major infrastructural work and allocated 205 industrial plots to 155 tanneries in the 200-acre leather park at Savar.
Not only that, all necessary infrastructures — such as roads, water treatment plants, gas and sewerage line, electricity substation plant — except the central effluent treatment plant (CETP) — have almost all been set up at the leather park.
The tannery owners however are yet to lay down the foundation for their factories, blaming the holdup on the failure to reach a consensus with the government regarding compensation and bank loans. The tannery owners demanded a compensation of 10.9 billion BDT, a readymade CETP and soft loans. In October 2013, an MoU was signed between BSCIC, Bangladesh Tanners’ Association (BTA) and Bangladesh Finished Leather, Leather-goods and Footwear Exporters Association (BFLLFEA) in this regard. As per the agreement, the government will offer a compensation package worth 2.5 billion BDT to 155 factories and assign 6.39 billion BDT for the installation of the CETP – a must for red-category factories discharging toxic chemicals.
Establishment of infrastructures at the 200-acre tannery estate on the bank of river Dhaleshwari at Harindhara village of Tetuljhora in Savar is nearly complete (the Savar Leather Industrial Estate). The plots have been prepared while the construction of roads, BSCIC Bhaban, police outpost, CETP and a power plant are now underway.
According to the Industry Ministry, the process of relocating the tanneries from Hazaribagh to Savar is ongoing, claiming the transfer process will be completed by 2016. Industries minister, Amir Hossain Amu told local news agencies that the relocation is assigned as “top priority” in order to protect the sector, and he urged the industrialists to immediately begin the process of relocation. However, industrialists believe the 2016 deadline set by the government is too ambitious, stating that the infrastructure required for the relocation is not yet in place.
While relocating is a matter of urgency for securing 160,000 people’s health who live surrounding the Hazaribagh area, reviewing the working conditions and social condition of the workers should also be an area to look into when or if the transfer is eventually done successfully.
On the issue of worker rights in the Hazaribagh tannery area, RISE spoke with trade unionist Mr. Abdul Malek – the General Secretary of “Tannery Workers Union (TWU)” who is also the Organizing Secretary of “Bangladesh Trade Union Centre (BTUC)”, Executive President of “Bangladesh Leather and Leather Goods Industry Workers Federation”, Member of National Council of “Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB)”.
Regarding transparency between buyers and workers, Mr. Malek said that “Tannery owners keep their buyers a secret, plus our sector is just too fluid to understand who is the actual owner of the contract which is being executed in a Tannery, and who the actual buyer is, as sometimes the buyer we see is only an agent or even freelancing buyers with contacts abroad”.
About Trade Unionization in the Tannery Industry, Mr. Malek explains: “We are a single union with members in Tanneries across the various factories of this Industry. We usually come into mutual understanding with the factory owner in case of an accident or compensation, and usually we are successful in such negotiations. We seldom visit the Labor Court. However, don’t see any possibility of the buyers taking their share of responsibility in times of a major crisis as we do not know who they are.” On social conditions at workplace, Mr. Malek further informs, “there are child workers, toxic working conditions, physical and verbal abuse, and a lot of pollution. There is no effluent treatment plant (ETP) or Chrome plant in Hazaribagh, there was one such Chrome filter plant in Dhaka Tannery but it is not working anymore. There is no ETP in Apex Tannery, or at least it does not work. Tanneries here are supposed to move to their new areas, however that is not happening yet.”