A few days back, I came across a copy of an article I wrote about the Hazaribagh leather tanneries in 2006. Though the facts and figures have changed, the underlying problem still remains.
As the sun rises from the eastern bank of the Buriganga River, it brings with it a sense of urgency and uncertainty. Today, some 7.7 million liters of waste water will be released into the Buriganga River from the nearby Hazaribagh leather tannery industries. The waste water contains a dangerous mixture of residual chemicals from the leather tanning process such as chromium, dyes, solvents sulphuric acid etc. Most of this waste water eventually reaches the Buriganga River, thereby resulting in what could be described as a “grave environmental crisis”.
The Buriganga River is a vital artery of the Bengal deltaic river system. It was once a prolific habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms. Today, the water is practically toxic to many of the organisms that once inhabited the area. The Buriganga River now boasts the dubious distinction of being the most polluted river in the country. A 2002 study on the State of Water Quality of the Buriganga River conducted by the Department of Environment, Dhaka Division as part of the “Save Buriganga Program” reported that pollution levels in the river are dangerously high.
Sights, Sounds, Smells and Sensations
Hazaribagh launches an immediate assault on the senses. Upon arrival at Hazaribagh, one is greeted by the ominous odour which has become one of the areas characteristic features and which can best be described as a mixture of rotting flesh and the harsh distinctive sting of industrial solvents. A milky blue liquid flows through a network of narrow sewers and stagnant ponds and eventually drains into the Buriganga River through massive gaping drain holes. The life consuming concoction is rich in chemicals which expend the vital oxygen from the water bodies , thus causing them to become lifeless and barren. The life pulse of the Buriganga is at its weakest during the winter, as its diminished flow cannot assimilate such massive quantities of pollutants. A study by the Department of Environmental in 2002 found that dissolved oxygen levels at Hazaribagh was as low as 2mg/L from January to May whereas levels between 4-8 mg/L are required to maintain a healthy aquatic habitat. Fish have become a rarity in these parts and those that are available are unfit for consumption, only consumed by the poorest of the poor, the most desperate and feeble, even then, with much distaste.
The narrow streets are further constricted by the makeshift tea stalls and shops that are randomly scattered by the sides of the roads. Rickshaw wallahs casually exchange pleasantries with colleagues as they navigate their way through the heavy traffic. One encounters remnants of the past, a dilapidated temple or a crumbling office building from bygone eras that once sweetened the air with the scent of spices carried to and fro from trading post to trading post. They stand disoriented, like passengers forgotten and left behind. The air vibrates with the hectic and violent clamoring of metal against metal and metal against leather. There is discord in the air, an unmistakable sensation. It permeates through walls and windows and violently demands our attention.
Leather processing was first introduced in Bangladesh during the 1980s. During that time, vegetable tanning processes were used which had a less significant impact on the environment. In 1965, a new process emerged. This process, known as “wet blue” tanning, produced product of higher quality but had a much more negative impact on the environment. The name of the process is derived from the characteristic blue coloration of the treated hides due to the presence of Chromium compounds. These compounds as well as many others used in the tanning process can cause health problems such as skin diseases, respiratory problems as well as certain forms of cancer. Nevertheless, chrome-processed leather became a major industry in Bangladesh. Today, there are 243 tanneries in the Hazaribagh area and the number is still growing.
The Lust for Leather
Hazaribagh is the undisputed capital of the Bangladesh leather industry. Here, leather is big business. Leather products are Bangladesh’s third largest export, bringing in US$ 252.5 million in 2002 and 90% of the tanneries in Bangladesh are located in Hazaribagh. Bangladesh has a competitive advantage in this sector as most countries have strict environmental regulations regarding the tanning process and waste management systems which drive up the cost of manufacturing leather. Such regulations require leather tannery industries to install waste water treatment plants, chromium recovery units etc. Unfortunately, only 2% of tanneries in Bangladesh currently employ such systems. Although the legal framework already exists, failure to properly implement such laws has severely limited the effectiveness of such regulations. Cost-effective pollution mitigating technologies are already in existence and attempts have been made to introduce these methods to tanneries in Hazaribagh by organizations such as UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization). Implementation of these methods require large initial capital investments that are eventually recovered in the long run. However, as Professor Haroun Er Rashid, director of the School of Environmental Science and Management at Independent University, Bangladesh, points out “long run is simply too far away”. Most of the tanneries in Hazaribagh are small to medium sized companies and simply do not have the expendable capital to incorporate these methods into their production process. The large tanneries that can afford to install such technologies in accordance with existing laws do not do so because they are protected by politically influential parties in exchange for financial favours. According to Professor Haroun Er Rashid, “The problem cannot be solved unless the political setup changes” and the culprits are held accountable for their actions.
The problems in Hazaribagh are really not very unique. They are manifestations of the larger issues that have permeated through all sectors and institutions in Bangladesh.
Of NIke and Necrosis
Most of the tanneries in Hazaribagh manufacture leather of the highest international standards for the sole purpose of export to foreign markets and they are suitable for use by top international brands. However, the tanneries in Bangladesh have failed to develop value added products and finished goods are only produced outside the country. Most of the leather produced in Hazaribagh is exported directly to large multinational tanneries under which they are subcontracted. Very few products can be bought in the domestic markets that are made of leather manufactured in Hazaribagh with the exception of shoes and other items that are produced from the scrap leather left over from the cutting process. Therefore, the Hazaribagh community must bear the brunt of the environmental and social costs and benefits only negligibly from the profits.
According to the study conducted by the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), a Dhaka based non-governmental organization, about 10 percent of Hazaribagh tannery workers die before they reach the age of 50 due to the unhygienic working environment. About 58 percent of workers suffer from ulcers, 31 percent have skin diseases, 17 percent suffer from malnutrition, 12 percent have high blood pressure and 11 percent suffer from rheumatic fever. The high morbidity rates reflect the horrendous living and working conditions the residents of Hazaribagh must face.
Mohammad Hanif is 22 years old and he has been working in Hazaribagh for 6 years. He lives there with his wife and three children. He developed eye problems three years ago and knows with great certainty that they are caused by the noxious gases he has been exposed to as a machine operator over the years. As he complains of blurred vision, he reassures me that he will see a doctor, but his tone clearly communicates doubt. He is one of the area’s fifty five thousand residents who have to bear the cost of the pollution produced by the leather industry.
What the Future Holds
The leather industry is an important source of much needed foreign currency and is still considered very profitable from an entrepreneurial point of view. According to Professor Haroun Er Rashid, further growth of the tanneries industries on the banks of the Buriganga River will cause similar conditions to evolve further downstream in areas such as Narayanganj, Munshiganj and Chandpur. Therefore, many more people will be exposed to similar living and working conditions. It will also cause severe water logging downstream. Excessive sedimentation may also cause the river to eventually dry up. Therefore, the government has recently decided to shift the tanneries to Savar by 2013 at an estimated cost of Tk. 1.9 million. The site will have a central effluent treatment plant to reduce the environmental degradation caused by the industries. However, the Bangladesh Tanner’s Association is still apprehensive about the cost of the move and the size of the plots that have been allocated. Therefore, the future remains uncertain.
Yusuf is 35 years old and supports his wife and his two young daughters. He says that the hardest thing about his life is the uncertainty. He has no fixed working hours or employers. He has to find work wherever he can get it. “We go when the factory people tell us to go”, he says. The demand for labor fluctuates greatly throughout the year. It is greatest during the 3 to 4 months around the Hajj festival and Eid-ul- Azha when approximately 12 to 15 thousand residents are employed or directly before the factories have large orders to send out. “When we find work, we can earn between 21 to 24 thousand taka a month. However, we face great uncertainty the rest of the year”, says Yusuf. Some workers spend the other months trying to find odd jobs and others return to their village homes after the peak season has passed.
The residents remain unconscious of the fact that they are at the center of a major environmental crisis. “We do not suffer anymore than anyone else”, one resident says. The locals have become accustomed to their life of hardship and insecurity. The risk of illness, industrial accidents and unemployment are merely components of the overall ambiguity of life.