Professor Enamul Huq of the East West University and the present writer, undertook a study in the 1980s on impacts of tanneries on Hazaribagh areas of Dhaka city. The focus was invariably on the associated costs of water and air pollution on human and livestock health following release of chemicals and waste into water bodies. En passant, it was a time when concerns over environment were just growing. Earlier, environmental considerations had never had a place in economists' agenda. It has long been argued that a rise in income should be the first and environmental consideration the second choice. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) was seemingly the pioneer in assessing environmental ramifications of different development projects in Bangladesh.
The findings were frightening. Among others, the residents of Hazaribagh areas were faced with various skin diseases. As far as this writer can remember, the average medical costs of the households in Hazaribagh were much higher than those of the group selected at that time. These estimates excluded the damage of fish stock in the Buriganga River or its water quality due to rundown of chemicals or effects on livestock. It appeared that in nominal terms, leather industries earned a huge amount of foreign exchange through exports and thus could be considered an important factor in employment generation. But taking the costs on the society including bad smell and health sufferings, the real benefit would stand much lower than shown.
Again, at the time of the study in the 1980s, there was rumour that the tanneries would be shifted from the city to somewhere else to help restore clean environment in Hazaribagh.
Hazaribagh accommodates about 200 tanneries constituting the lifeline of the leather industry and every year contributes $1.0 billion to the national exchequer. According to data released by different sources of investigation including an article published in this daily on February 15, 2016 - around 21,000 cubic metres of untreated waste is being dumped into the Buriganga River every day. The river is the main source of water for Dhaka. In many cities of the world, such rivers are kept clean to attract tourists. Workers, engaged in the tanneries, operate with little protective gear to safeguard themselves from hazardous chemicals such as chromium. The effects of dumping chemical waste into the Buriganga are as follows: (a) bad smell is affecting the Hazaribagh residents; (b) use of 40 different types of metal and acid in raw hide processing, 40 per cent of which is absorbed into leather while the rest is discarded into surrounding water bodies and (c) serious environmental degradation. Other hazardous toxins used in the production process include potash, sulphuric acid, caustic soda, arsenic sulphate etc. The quick and crude survey in the 1980s and recent findings tell the same story. For example, a large number of people living in the vicinity of Hazaribagh suffer from various skin diseases as the water is contaminated. Both livestock and fisheries production in the area have declined.
It may be mentioned here that the initiative to relocate the Hazaribagh tanneries outside Dhaka began in 2009 on the heels of a High Court order. The idea was to increase foreign exchange earnings at less human costs. It was also to set up a safe tannery zone and protect the city's water supply from contamination. Unfortunately, even in 2016, the compliance rate is very low whereas the owners have allegedly drawn a huge amount of money from the government exchequer in the name of shifting. To add salt to the injury, the reality is that most of the tannery owners who were allotted plots left business long ago. Reportedly, these tanneries are running on rent and the owners are allegedly selling their allotted plots in Savar. Many of the founders of the tanneries have also died. By and large, rampant corruption and fraudulence have become an order of the day.
Most probably, this time the deadline of meeting the government's order of relocation was February 28, 2016. This meant Dhaka people, especially the residents of Hazaribagh, would no longer pass days amid bad smell, the Buriganga River would witness stoppage of chemical waste into the river, and swell with sweet water. But as ill luck would have it, there seems to be no sign of a positive development as far as shifting is concerned. People expect that the government would handle the situation with iron hand implying that non-compliant should be severely dealt with even if that means cancelling of licenses and awarding punitive punishment. Hazaribagh must be a normal habitat; the Buriganga must regain its lost vigour and Dhaka should emerge as a beautiful city. The calculus of increased export earnings and employment generation should henceforth be pitted against the pains inflicted to human beings and livestock. Green growth should always be at the top of the agenda. Without considering the side effects of pollution and environmental hazards, growth can hardly be sustainable. A livelihood comprises capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets now and in the future while not undermining the natural resource base. One of the reasons that Bangladesh's economic growth is faced with serious sustainable question is the lack of accounting on environmental hazards created by the growth process itself. Growth of exports such as leather type in Hazaribagh contributes to increased foreign exchange earnings and also employment but at a huge cost of human welfare. The present government should set an example by forcing the factories to shift to Savar even if it means paying some penny politically.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnanagr University.