The tanneries of Hazaribagh were relocated to the Tannery Industrial City at Savar in 2017 to bring an end to the miserable pollution of the River Buriganga. Only, these tanneries are now polluting the Dhaleswari.
The two main reasons for the pollution are that tanneries use as much water as they want to process raw leather and they have no system for managing solid waste.
Sources said the excessive water use is causing extra pressure on the Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) of the industrial park. As a result, the CETP is unable to treat the water properly and this water flows into the Dhaleshwari.
Further, as there is no solid waste management system, such waste lies in the open. Animal skin and fur, hooves, ears, horns, nails, tails, and bones are dumped in a six-acre dumping yard. When it rains, the rainwater washes away the solid waste into the Dhaleshwari, thus polluting the river water.
During a recent visit to the tannery city, The Business Standard found that roads were still being constructed and street lights were still being installed. Also, the river water had turned black – just as what happened in the Buriganga – and it stank.
The CETP has four modules and all were running in full swing. Liquid waste coming out of tanneries was entering the modules and was coming out of the modules after being treated. This then flowed into the river.
People living on the riverbanks say they used to use river water in their daily life for various purposes, but that is no longer possible. They say polluted water creates skin problems. Fishermen in the area say there is now less fish in the river than in the past.
In 2003, the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) took steps to relocate all monotype tannery industries to the tannery city on the banks of the Dhaleshwari. The project is still incomplete 17 years on; its tenure was extended four times while it expenditures rose several folds.
BSCIC says the tenure will not be extended further and the project will be complete by June this year.
The CETP can treat 25,000 cubic metres of liquid waste per day but during peak time, for example, after Eid-ul-Azha, the daily amount of such waste exceeds 50,000 cubic metres.
Sources said around 30,000 litres of water are needed for processing each tonne of raw leather, but tanneries use more than 50,000 litres. As a result, the CETP fails to properly handle liquid waste.
At a recent meeting with tannery owners, BSCIC proposed imposing tariffs on the use of extra water. But the owners were not willing to accept it.
BSCIC Chairman Md Mostaque Hassan told The Business Standard, "The CETP is functioning but during peak time, the liquid waste flow increases and creates pressure on it. It then runs out of capacity and thus, the waste overflows."
"We are trying to finish the project as per the latest deadline. When it is fully completed, tanneries will benefit," he added.
Dr Md Didar-ul-Alam, a professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Environment at the University of Dhaka, said, "The relocation of tanneries has not reduced river pollution. Before, tannery waste polluted the Buriganga, now it is polluting the Dhaleshwari."
"Although attempts have been made to treat the waste through the CETP, its capacity is insufficient compared to the waste generated. As a result, the waste is polluting soil and river water. If long-term plans are not made now, these tanneries may lead to many catastrophes," he continued.
Jitendra Nath Pal, project director of the tannery city, told The Business Standard, "When tanneries were forced to relocate, the CETP was only about 50% effective. Now all four modules are functioning but there is excessive pressure on it because the tanneries use unlimited amounts of water."
"As it has to treat more waste than its capacity, sometimes the CETP does not function properly," he explained.
Mistakes at the outset
In 2003, when the initiative was taken to relocate the tanneries, there were no plans to set up a CETP. Later in 2012, the project was amended and the plan to set up a CETP at an estimated cost of Tk447 crore was included in the main plan.
Chinese contractor JLEPCL-DCL JV was awarded the CETP set-up project on 11 March, 2012. According to BSCIC sources, the tenure of the project was 18 months, and the contractor got another six months for commissioning and stabilisation.
But the two-year project was not finished even in six years. Although the main part – building the four modules – is done, setting up an online monitoring system is still underway.
The project was supposed to be finished by 30 December last year but even after extending the tenure more than 10 times – in response to the contractor's demand – it remains unfinished. Now the contactor has demanded another extension.
Main project tenure extended four times
To relocate the tanneries, the government, in 2003, approved that 199 acres of land in Hemayetpur be used for an environmentally-friendly leather industrial estate.
The project was approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) on 16 August, 2003 and the estimated cost was Tk175.65 crore. It was supposed to be implemented between January 2003 and December 2005.
The project tenure has since been extended four times, and the latest deadline is June 2021. The cost has also risen to Tk1,015.56 crore – Tk260 crore for transfer of tanneries, Tk521.35 crore for CETP and sewage treatment plant (STP) installations and Tk234.17 crore for other expenditures.
Tannery owners were finally forced to relocate in 2017. Among the 155 tanneries in Hazaribagh, 154 were allotted industrial plots in the tannery city and 130 are now in operation.
The remaining 24 failed to start their operations due to various reasons, including legal complexities. However, 10 of them are expected to start production soon.
Sujan Hossain, a student at Savar University College, told The Business Standard, "A few years ago, we used to go to the river to bathe and catch fish, but now it has become difficult just to get near the river."
People living on the riverbanks said the colour of the river water radically changes in winter and turns black.
Abul Fazal, a local, said, "The river water used to be so clean that the soil under the river was visible. But now the water has turned completely black."
Fisherman Binoy Sadhak said sometimes dead fish are seen floating in the river.
After the High Court ordered the Hazaribagh tannery owners to relocate, their water, electricity and gas lines were disconnected. BSCIC sources said due to the repeated extension of the tenure, the project was not fully completed when tanneries finally relocated to Savar.
At the time, only two of the four CETP modules were functional, and this caused environmental pollution to increase.
The Leather Working Group (LWG), a non-profit organisation in the United Kingdom, certifies leather factories that comply with certain conditions. Foreign buyers interested in buying leather from tanneries look for this certification.
The LWG gives its certificates based on 16 criteria in four categories: Gold, Silver, Bronze and Audited. Factors like environmental protection, waste treatment, sources of raw materials, use of fuel and water, etc. are considered for certification.
In Bangladesh, only three companies have LWG certification. Apex Footwear Limited has a Gold rating while Austan Limited and Reef Leather Limited have Audited and Bronze certificates, respectively.
What tannery owners say
Md Shaheen Ahamed, chairman of the Bangladesh Tanners' Association, said around Tk6,500 crore has so far been invested in the tannery city and the amount will reach Tk8,000 crore once all tanneries have started operating.
When asked about tanneries using excessive amounts of water to process raw leather, he said, "The standard is to use 30,000-35,000 litres per tonne, and this may rise to 45,000 litres."
Md Shakawat Ullah, general secretary of the association and owner of Salma Tannery, told The Business Standard, "None of the tannery owners defaulted before the relocation. But since 2017, most of them have been counting losses."
Mohiuddin Ahmed Mahin, chairman of Bangladesh Finished Leather, Leathergoods and Footwear Exporters Association, said leather exporters are not getting any extra benefits after relocating.
Leathergoods and Footwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association of Bangladesh President Md Saiful Islam said, "The CETP in Savar does not have the capacity to carry the full load of 155 tanneries."
Dr Mohammed Abu Eusuf, executive director of the Research and Policy Integration for Development, said, "We have not yet achieved the kind of compliant industry that is supposed to be world-class and environmentally-friendly, but we have to. The time has come to follow the 'no compliance, no business' policy."
Rafiqul Islam, Farhad Hossain, Faijullah Wasif, Sukanta Halder, Jahir Rayhan, Md Jahidul Islam and Joynal Abedin Shishir prepared the report after visiting the Savar Tannery Industrial City.