Industrial waste from the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries park in Brahmanbaria has been damaging crops on nearly 30 acres of land; threatening the biodiversity and health of people, as well as livestock, in its vicinity.
The factories need effluent treatment plants to treat toxic waste. However, only about eight percent of the factories in the area have this technology and even they do not operate according to regulations.
The pollution problem has persisted for almost two and a half decades while the authorities concerned have remained inactive despite repeated pledges they would solve it.
The industrial zone was established in Nandanpur of Brahmanbaria Sadar upazila on 21.98-acres of land. At present, 66 of its 72-recognised factories are operational; two produce medicine, four are silicate factories, two produce soap, four create metal items, three manufacture biscuits, and four refine mustard oil – among others.
During an investigation, The Business Standard found that the soap and silicate factories dump the majority of the toxic waste.
Chhadirpur village, with a population of about 500, bears the brunt of the impact, as it is adjacent to the industrial area. Most of its winter crops, including paddy, are damaged every year. Unable to avoid losses, many farmers have been compelled to sell their land to different factory owners.
The waste also severely pollutes the canal adjacent to the Cumilla-Sylhet Highway, blackening the water with chemicals, this correspondent found. The grasses used as fodder and demarcation of farmland have also conspicuously turned reddish.
The canal was excavated a couple of months ago with funds raised by the factory owners. But the effect of this did not last long, since the dumping happens so fast and is of such great volume that it fills the canal.
The situation becomes more severe during the rainy season, when the canal water floods nearby land.
The canal causes skin diseases in humans who come into contact with it and kills many of the livestock. As a result, many have ceased farming animals.
Abdul Malek, an elderly man living in the Chhadirpur village, who has been there for the past 35 years, said the villagers have been suffering since the industrial area was set up.
A few years ago, he had to sell his 16-decimal cultivable land to a petrol pump, as waste from the industrial area had damaged his paddy and he had incurred huge losses. He demanded effective measures be taken to resolve the prolonged crisis.
Hadis Miah, another man from the village lost his cow three years ago to the industrial waste. As a result, he no-longer rears cattle.
"The villagers' livestock dies because of environmental pollution caused by toxic waste," he said, adding that the waste also inflicts skin diseases on the villagers.
Nilufa Begum, from the same village, said people find it very difficult to stay inside the house and endure the horrible smell of the polluted canal water. "Everyone in my family has been suffering from skin diseases due to the pollution," she added.
The poultry animals also become infected and die when they dip into the chemical-filled canal. "We demand an end to this problem," Nilufa said.
Dr Shawkat Hossain of the Brahmanbaria Zila Sadar Hospital told The Business Standard that many from Chhadirpur village frequently come to him to be treated for: allergies, eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis and other skin diseases. The chemical-polluted water could even cause cancer and kill people, he added.
Shawkat Ara Koli, deputy director of the Brahmanbaria Department of Environment acknowledged the stark environmental risks posed by the industrial area.
He however contended that it is not possible for his department alone to inspect the operations of the effluent treatment plants every day. If the industrial park authority would come forward to share the responsibility, the task would be easier.
"The department takes action when it finds any treatment plant not operating during its occasional field inspections," Shawkat added, while stressing the need for a combined effluent treatment plant in the zone.
Fazlul Haque, an official at the industrial zone, told The Business Standard that, "effluent treatment plants have been set up for five of the factories that dump the majority of the waste, but they are not being operated properly."
Jamal Uddin, general secretary of the association of firm owners at the industrial zone said that five factories in the zone dump chemical waste.
However, these are not toxic, he said, because, "Effluent treatment plants function consistently in these factories. The plants were set up following pressure from the district administration."
Abu Naser, deputy director at the Brahmanbaria Department of Agricultural Extension said that they are aware of the issue and a resolution was recently drawn up – at a monthly district development meeting – to take preventive steps.
"The factories have already been directed to use effluent treatment plants," he added.
Pankaj Barua, upazila nirbahi officer of Brahmanbaria Sadar said, "steps will be taken to ensure that the effluent treatment plants are operated properly and legal action will be taken against anyone not complying."