Too long time has been given to tanners to shift out of Hazaribagh, the heart of the capital city of Dhaka, to suburban Savar with their factories blamed for environmental pollution of the area and the surrounding river. Not that the tannery owners and the hapless workers do not know that they, too, are not being spared from the poison their factories is spewing into the densely-populated neighbourhoods and the life-giving waters of the Buriganga. Why then such a delay?
The motive may be to earn some easy money even in the filths at a high cost of human health and hygiene by doing comfortable business. But the untreated tannery trashes are the worst among the pollutants that have spelt death knell for the river Buriganga and other rivers surrounding the metropolis. The rivers readily should find an analogy with the Thames beside London once rotting in the wake of the eighteenth century Industrial Revolution which created a craze for hot money among the nascent capitalists of the time. The Thames' woes have been embodied in hate of wanton rapacity of the tycoons in famous English literary works like the Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.
In Bangladesh, the rot of rivers is a virtual synonym for an outcry of greens and stakeholders of all classes irrespective of urban and rural habitants. In truth hardly are there any other such notorious polluters as Hazaribagh tanneries and chemical factories discharging untreated industrial wastes into the river that have witnessed and withstood so much of protest by green campaigners of the country. Academics, writers, artists and journalists joined hands with the greens and civil society members in staging demonstrations against such reckless assault on environment of a capital city where names of most of the localities are after gardens in once-idyllic setting.
All this has gone into the government planning of relocation of the tanneries to a designated hub in Savar area - though, again, not far away from the Dhaka city's fringes. Environment experts are of the opinion that the leather city could be further away into any backwoods. Anyway, no more fuss - mind you, this is a crossroads in human history where development and clean environment are synonymous in order to tide over impending dangers of natural catastrophes due to industrial pollutants.
In mid-January 2016 wintry weather, people of Rajshahi area were surprised to see two days of rain coupled with storms. Around the same time, a fearful blizzard wrought havoc on parts of the United States - rated as the most developed and worst polluter as a consequence of hedonist pursuit of development sans climate concerns. These are nothing supernatural - all are nature's revenge for the assault on it, knowingly or unknowingly. Good sense appears to be prevailing on the development planners, especially by the frightening sights of weather queen La Nina and king El Nino that bring in floods and storms and droughts and destruction. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) come out from this belated realisation as a binding universal deal to save the planet and save humanity from the wrath of nature.
Bangladesh, as a most vulnerable country, is and should be a prominent party to it. A breach of the rules set in the 17 objectives of the SDGs adopted at a global summit at the UN headquarters and the terms of the climate deal struck at the UN-sponsored climate summit in Paris 2015 would not only accentuate its vulnerability but also dim its chances of drawling dollars from a global compensation fund to that end. The fund is to be built mostly on penalty for the mass polluters - the most developed nations and, for that matter, worst contributors to ozone destruction in the atmosphere with excessive carbon dioxide emissions. The receivers like Bangladesh do have their own obligations, too.
From this point of view, after all, the Hazaribagh site of factories in Dhaka city is declared the fifth most polluted place in the world by two reputed research organisations. Such a grim prelude allows no more 'foot dragging' by either of the sides - the polluters and the preventers in government authority, particularly the executing agencies - in the matter of planned relocation of the tanneries to the designated Savar Leather Industrial City. The latest extended timeline was up to March 01, 2016. Earlier on January 09, 2016 the industries ministry had asked the tanners to move to Savar within 72 hours. However, following negotiations with the tannery owners, the ministry gave them until the first of March 2016 to shift to the Savar site.
Despite the government's ultimatum, the tannery owners are yet to relocate their factories from the city's Hazaribagh area to Savar. Now the tannery owners say that all 205 tanneries will be shifted before the Eid-ul-Azha. They also say that the government will possibly release the compensation fund to expedite the relocation.
Meanwhile, the operation of the central affluent treat plant (CETP) has been started and 155 industrials plots have been developed on 200-acre leather estate in Savar. The industries ministry has already allocated the plots to 155 tannery owners.
The move to relocate tannery industry to Savar was made 13 years back to save the old Dhaka area from serious pollution. But the new leather city could not be completed in time as the tanners never showed any real interest in relocating their factories there. Legal tangles for years were also partly to blame for that. Only in April 2013, the design for the tannery site in Savar was approved by the government. Since then, the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) had written to tannery owners at least 30 times to complete construction of their factories and move there, but yet to no effect.
The government has set up the tannery industrial estate to protect capital Dhaka's environment. By now, some tannery owners said most of the 155 industrial units are yet to be completed as construction works are going on. Meanwhile, the government has served legal notices to the owners of 28 tanneries who are yet to start work to relocate their factories from Hazaribagh to Savar. The government initially took the three-year project in 2003 to set up the industrial park spending some BDT 1.76 billion to relocate some 205 tanneries from Hazaribagh considering the health and environment hazards in the capital.
Observers believe that any backtracking again may encourage the defiant polluters or lawbreakers. So, the government should act decisively as the latest deadline is over by at least suspending operations of the errant ones until their relocation.
The writer is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General