The first sight
The autumnal Kashphuls looked as serene and white as they could be by the banks of the Jamuna.
A flight of river lapwings cackled overhead. The eddies looked brown, heavy with fresh silt coming down the Himalayas. It had been raining for some days, unexpectedly for this time of the year.
Our boat approached through the thick reed forest and all we could see was the whiteness of the Kash. Then we saw this opening and the char beyond.
From this far, the small arched bamboo huts spread in a line along the bank did not make much sense. They could be anything. Guard posts for seasonal farmers. Or, fishermen's temporary resting shelters. Nothing to pique one's curiosity.
"There they are," our guide sounded tense. "I am warning you again. We are just some stray tourists out on an excursion and happened to be here. Never say we are journalists. We have been journeying for a long time and just want to stretch our legs. That's all. And please, please. Don't show much curiosity. Don't ask too many questions that may raise their suspicion. Or else we are in for trouble."
'We are working'
For the last one week, our source had been secretly gathering information about these people. In these remote villages of Bera upazila in Pabna, a slow environmental disaster on an unprecedented scale is taking place. Here hundreds of "clandestine" and illegal battery recycling plants have mushroomed.
These are just some crude operations done in the most unprotected way beyond any regulation. And they handle a dangerous metal – lead. Every day they break open thousands of tonnes of automobile batteries, pour the acid in the rivers, bring out the lead elements and melt them in open kilns.
In the process, both air and water are being laced with toxic lead that finds its way into our bodies, affecting almost all our organs. Both adults and children develop neurotoxicity, and chronic exposure to lead affects the gastrointestinal system, causes development of immature blood cells and damages the renal, nervous and reproductive systems.
And here we saw these people in front of our eyes. Four large motorised boats loaded with white sacks were moored by the banks.
There was a flurry of activity. About 40 young men – mostly in their teens and 20s – were unloading the sacks.
As our boat pulled to the bank, they froze and measured us up and down.
"Bhai machh dhoren naki? Machh achhey? (Brother, are you catching fish? Do you have fish for sale?)," our guide called out to ease the tension, although we knew the question was quite dumb because it was obvious that this was no fishing party. But it is better to be dumb here.
"Na. Kam kori (No, we are working)," someone replied.
"Can we get down here? We are out on a picnic."
"Ashen. (Come ashore)."
As we clambered up the shore, the scene hit us with a full force.
As far as we could see from one side of the char to the other, we found row after row of open-pit furnaces.
These are very simple arrangements. Holes have been dug into the ground. The earth around each hole has been paved with bricks. Coal is heaped around to be used for melting lead. Each furnace has a blower run by a diesel engine to keep the coal burning high.
On this afternoon, the furnaces were being readied. The holes glistened in iridescent colours as residues of molten lead stuck to the earth.
Unaware of the danger, boys were mud-coating the holes with their bare hands so that molten lead did not seep through the cracks in the earth. And in the process the unsuspecting boys were getting poisoned by the toxic metal.
The short autumn afternoon was closing fast and the workers hurried to ready the furnaces and stock the lead.
It is only after darkness that the blowers roar into life and fires leap from the furnaces. The big toxic party would then begin because they all know that they are doing something illegal, and do not want to do it in daylight.
We counted the furnaces – there were 32 of them on this char that is known as Shishakhola, a name understandably derived from this lead (Shisha in Bangla) business. Each "factory" is owned by one Mahajan or trader.
Two men work on each furnace during the melting process. As the lead melts they scoop up the liquid metal and pour it into half-round pans to be cooled. Once hardened, the lead nuggets each weighing about 40kg are transported across the river to the traders.
'We find cancer patients'
The men who work on the melting do it without any safety measures. Night after night they inhale the toxic lead fumes, without realising that they are marching to certain death and passing the toxicity to their next generations to come.
We talked to Dr Milon Mahmud, upazila health officer of Bera Health Complex, to learn if he finds patients with problems relating to lead poisoning.
He very frequently finds workers with corroded nails and fingers. Deep soars often make their hands unusable.
"And we get a lot of lung cancer patients," Dr Milon said. "The toxic fumes are inhaled and that creates lung cancer, but we are not sure if the cancer is caused by lead poisoning."
In Bera upazila, we have heard of women giving birth to children with disabilities and retareded mental growth. The claims could not be verified because of security challenges.
But we met quite a few children with low intellectual development.
Fourteen-year-old Delwar at Koitola, on the other side of the char, is one of them. He is a slow learner and at this age is still scrapping the ladders of class four in the local school.
Delwar literally lives on lead. He sleeps on lead. He eats lead. His father runs a recycling unit at home and the home yard is buried under piles of lead.
The whole family walks barefoot on lead and they have no idea what effects the metal is having on their health.
When we asked his mother if Delwar goes to school, she smiled.
"He is short of brain," the mother said. "He can't remember anything. So, year after year he flunks in the exams."
But then he may be a case not related to lead. Just DNA damage. There was no chance to measure the metal level in his blood.
But a study by two Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) teachers in 2014 found that workers in battery recycling factories have 50 percent more lead in their blood than the acceptable limit.
In Shisharchar, darkness was fast creeping in as the last rays of sunlight faded on the horizon. The workers were getting ready to light up their furnaces and wanted us to leave. It was also unusual for some chance travellers to hang around on this char after dusk. So, we got on to our boat and puttered out to the open.
From a distance we could see the glow of fires burning on the char.
The lead was melting.
When green turns grim
In the last few months, we have taken notice of the villages and urban growth centres and have come to a new realisation – that paddle-rickshaws have disappeared altogether except from Dhaka city.
They have been replaced by battery-operated rickshaws and "easybikes". Hundreds of thousands of them are plying the streets and battery-operated rickshaw vans have also been added. Each of them uses anything between five to six batteries, creating a booming demand. About 65 percent of all the batteries sold in Bangladesh are used in such vehicles.
This may promise a cleaner transportation, but every six months the batteries have to be replaced. And that has a huge environmental impact.
According to the Accumulator Battery Manufacturing and Exporters Association, the market is growing by about 12 percent annually.
The association says the country's battery plants require about 12,000 tonnes of lead, 70 percent of which comes from the recycling plants. But a veteran in battery manufacturing said the number is much larger because about 20,000 tonnes of batteries are recycled every month.
The Department of the Environment has given licences to only five factories to recycle batteries under strict guidelines. But the department's own estimates say there are some 250 recycling plants operating across the country.
A plant has to have safety measures like an effluent treatment plant and an air treatment plant. None of the "factories" we saw have any safety measures.
And this is not happening only in Pabna. The toxic business has spread far and wide – from Dhaka to Bogura to Dinajpur and beyond.
All of this is happening with the full knowledge of the environment department and the police. There are allegations of bribes changing hands. For example, the Bera Mahajans said they pay about Tk2.5 lakh to the "right people".
The main consumers of the unregulated recycling industry are some Chinese companies that have sprung up across the country, producing cheap batteries. But there are many small local factories too that survive on unregulated recycled lead.
Before going to the Jamuna chars, we went to Bera upazila. There at Salonga village we witnessed another toxic carnival going on in full swing.
There is just one bitumen road running from one side of the neighbourhood to the other by the Kakeswari River before it swings up to the edge of the Jamuna.
On both sides of the road stood row after row of tin-shed shops stuffed from floor to ceiling with dead automobile batteries. Someone said there are some 92 such shops there.
Trucks parked by the road were being loaded with lead nuggets. The loaders just carry the heavy nuggets on their bare head. Their heads covered with fine lead dust.
Behind one such shop that we entered under the pretence of using the washroom, we found used batteries being sawed open. Thousands of them. The acid is then poured into the drain from where it washes down to the Kakeswari River that ultimately connects with the Jamuna half a kilometre away.
The lead plates are pulled out from inside the plastic casings and left on the floor. Then the casings are washed in a concrete tank in which the water has turned black with lead dust and acid.
The water is then drained into the river to be passed to humans through the food chain. The fish are being laced with lead which is consumed by the people across the country.
The women who were cleaning the casings showed us their hands. Acid had corroded the fingers.
"We itch a lot. And the sores that develop never go away," one woman said.
A few shops away we found two little boys – hardly about 11 – dislodging the plates from battery casings with their bare hands.
Hakim is a fifth grader, but he works here after school. His hands and face are smeared with lead dust.
"Isn't it harmful?" we asked. "Don't you have problems?"
"Nah. Not yet. But I have heard that it is harmful."
"Then why don't you take precautions?"
He laughs. To him the few hundred takas he earns from this hazardous job is more precious than his health.
"I get Tk4.5 for extracting each kilogram of lead," Hakim said. "Each day I can handle about 30 to 40kg of lead."
And that's a lot for a small boy in a remote village where the only alternative is to catch fish in the river.
Hazardous as they are, these jobs offer a lifeline for a village where very few informal sectors have developed. Other than the battery recycling, nothing much caught our eyes. Only a few eateries and grocery shops. That's all that Salonga has got.
So when you are paid Tk600 for melting lead for a night, that's big money. Or, when you get Tk1.5 for unloading a kilogram of raw lead from the boat to the furnace or Tk9 for uploading lead nuggets from the plants to the trucks, it is good money.
And as long as it gets you good money, who cares about health, toxicity, generations of disability.
In the guise of a motorcar workshop owner in Dhaka, I talked to the biggest Mahajan in the area.
"How many batteries can you offer?" was his first question.
"May be 50 a week or even 100. How much will you offer?"
"Well, right now the going price is Tk135 a kg. When will you bring them?"
From there we went to Koitola, another village on the way. The same thing is repeated here by the Kakeswari River. Heaps of lead are left carelessly by the river bank, and many of them get soaked in river water.
A few yards away, we saw people using nets to catch fish. The toxic chain is spread from water to fish to human body.
There is a huge water pump installation operated by the Water Development Board, pumping this toxic water onto farmland. The crops are contaminated and so are the humans who consume the food.
There is no specific act and rule to check open-pit lead smelting.
The Department of the Environment published a gazette in July 2006 related to battery recycling.
According to the gazette, haphazard storing or breaking lead-acid batteries and recycling without obtaining an Environmental Certificate is prohibited. The gazette also directs battery users to return used batteries only to DoE-approved buyers and dealers of batteries. The dealers must recycle the batteries in DoE-approved recycling facilities.
Environment officials said the department applies the "Hazardous waste and ship-breaking waste management rules 2011" while dealing with battery recyclers.
According to the rules, by-products of secondary production of lead like lead-bearing residue, lead ash/particulate from flue gas are "Hazardous Waste". The rules include lead as a hazardous chemical referring to the Basel Convention 1989.
The rules bind the battery recyclers to publish information about the volume of recycled products, recycling process and environmental consequences on a regular basis. Additionally, the rules direct the parties to follow environmentally sound processes. If anyone violates the directives, the offenders will be punished as per Section 15 of the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995.
There has been media coverage of raids against illegal lead smelters.
But the Department of the Environment's enforcement wing officials failed to provide information on how many illegal lead smelters were punished in the last couple of years.
Rubina Ferdoushi, director (monitoring and enforcement) of the department, told The Business Standard that local administrations often conduct raids against environment polluters. But there is no specific data at the department on punishment of lead smelters.