Recommendations to stop pollution by Savar tanneries ‘fall on deaf ears’

Pollution in Savar prompted a parliamentary committee to recommend closing the tanneries for now

Published : 30 July 2022, 09:29 PM
Updated : 30 July 2022, 09:29 PM

Pollution in Savar prompted the parliamentary standing committee on environment to recommend closing the BSCIC Tannery Industrial Estate for now. But the recommendation has not been acted upon and the committee later proposed a drive to shut the tanneries.

As its words appear to have fallen on deaf ears, the panel now wants the power supply to the industrial city cut off.

The pattern of changes in the committee’s recommendations led environmentalists to think whether it is going soft on the errant units.

The committee says it is firm against all sorts of pollution, but it believes the environment ministry is hesitating to force other ministries, in this case the industries ministry, to comply with the environmental rules.

The environment ministry says it is in communication with the industries ministry over the matter.

The BSCIC began work on establishing the leather industrial park at Hemayetpur in 2003. But long delays in the relocation prompted the High Court to issue an order to disconnect the factories’ gas, water and electricity connections in Hazaribagh and all the plants were moved in 2017.

As many as 155 tanneries were given lands in Hemayetpur where BSCIC is supposed to set up a central waste treatment plant. A Chinese company was put in charge of constructing the plant in 2012 but they could not launch the common effluent treatment plant in time. The structure was also subject to questions over its effectiveness while the work to set it up has not finished yet.

The leather industrial park produces as much as 40,000 cubic metres of waste every day but the CETP can process 25,000 cubic metres of waste a day. The tannery region also lacks a chromium purifying facility.

The parliamentary committee says that the remaining 15,000 cubic metres of waste polluted the environment there every day, which accumulated into 6.4 million cubic metres over three years.

Some of the tanneries received environmental clearance, but it is taking more time for renewal, which is making it difficult for the exporters to be in compliance with the conditions set by foreign buyers, tannery owners said.

In these circumstances, the parliamentary panel in August 2021 said the tanneries should be kept closed for now. The Department of Environment then wrote to Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation, or BSCIC. The committee said BSCIC denied the DoE’s instructions, but its explanation was not satisfactory.

The committee later recommended a drive to identify and close the units responsible for pollution.

On Jul 17, the committee recommended cutting off power connections to the industrial city.

Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury, chairman of the National River Conservation Commission Chairman, was not happy after a recent inspection of the industrial city.

Initially, the tanneries were supposed to set up their own effluent treatment plant but their disinclination to do so prompted authorities to revise the project in 2010 to establish CETP under the Ministry of Industries. The project budget was revised to Tk 5.45 billion.

However, the ministry repeatedly prodded the tanneries with deadlines for relocation without ensuring the facilities in the new venue, but that had little effect and so the High Court moved with the utility disconnection directive.

As many as 130 organisations began production before all components of the CETP could be set up. The polluted waters of Hazaribagh tanneries mixed with the waters of the Buriganga River and now, the waste produced in Hemayetpur is flowing to the Dhaleshwari River.

“We are prioritising the matter and setting up compliances, which I hope will be better than those set locally by the Department of Environment,” said Industries Secretary Zakia Sultana.

BSCIC Chairman Mahbubur Rahman did not respond to requests for comment.

Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Shahab Uddin sounded frustrated.

“We’re trying, repeatedly asking the industries ministry. Environment must be given priority. We’re trying.”

Sanjay Kumar Bhowmik, additional secretary to the environment ministry, said, “The work is ongoing to stop pollution, to keep the presence of chemicals lower than the prescribed standards.”

When asked why the ministry is not implementing the recommendation despite repeated efforts,

Saber Hossain Chowdhury, chairman of the parliamentary committee, said the industries ministry promised to increase the level of oxygen and reduce chromium in the waste in the next three to six months. “In case of failure, we told them, we won’t allow the units responsible for this to continue. Power will be turned off if necessary."

Asked if the parliamentary committee had backtracked on its decision to close the tanneries for now, Saber said: "We’ve taken a firm stance. However, we understand the condition of the environment ministry. Maybe they feel embarrassed to instruct another ministry.

“Our position and laws must apply equally to all. It’s not possible that we shall take measures against individuals only but not the government. Although they [the industries ministry] make a lot of arguments about employment and investment, public health and environment, and biodiversity are also important.”

In a recent meeting of the inter-ministerial task force formed with the aim to make recommendations for the development of the leather industry sector, the parliamentary committee recommendations were discussed. When asked about the meeting, Director General of the Department of Environment Abdul Hamid declined to comment.

An industries ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told, "The environment ministry can't be strict even if it wants to. Because they don’t feel the urgency. It will take some time.”

Bangladesh Tanners' Association (BTA) President

Shaheen Ahmed, president of Bangladesh Tanners’ Association, said: “It will take us one to two years to meet all the local compliances. The issues were also raised at the task force meeting held on Tuesday.

“The existing central sewage treatment plant needs some rectification. Apart from this, the need for a separate chromium refining plant also came up. That will also be done and will take 1-2 years."

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher