Dhaka tanners slowly moving forward

By Richard Istel
Published:  15 April, 2014

When you walk down the “shr-e-bangla road ” in the old tannery district of Hazaribagh in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka you can smell waste from the garbage all around. Some people collect left over items and walk up and down the street in dirty clothes and slippers. When I walk along I see some people that I do business with and friends. It’s a kind of a village life with many colourful rickshaws, within one of the most overcrowded places in the world. 

The tanneries have major challenges working with the local raw materials. The local cow hides have a fine and beautiful grain but the tightness over the skin is very uneven! There is a tendency for looseness, which might be considered as some of the worse with the highest proportion of looseness in the world. Less than 30% retain a tight grain and it is not possible to produce a really tight article in my opinion. It is also true to say that the slaughtering in the area is not really well organised by big slaughter companies, but instead is carried out by small operations. This makes it difficult to get the most out of the hides during the beamhouse operations and obtain consistent results.

Forward steps

Having outlined the processing difficulties working with the tanners in Hazaribagh there is also another side to the story. In the past few years there has been many articles written about the poor environmental and working conditions in the area. The wastewater treatment problem has been highlighted and presented to the Bangladeshi government. However, there are only two main reasons why the pressure for the relocation to the new tannery area in Savar near Dhaka has really increased in recent months.

An initial recommendation to relocate the tanneries was submitted by Unido experts in 1996. Since then many deadlines have been missed for the relocation of the tanneries. There have been many reasons for this but the three core issues are:

-       Up to now no wastewater treatment plant has established in Savar supported by the government.

-       The value of the compensation payments to tannery owners was not properly negotiated.

-       There have not been any long-term bank loans available to tanners at a reasonable interest/repayment levels.

Construction of the new CEPT

The construction work of the central effluent treatment plant (CETP) was started at the beginning of March 2014. When I initially heard this, for me, it was a big surprise. I went to Savar at the end of March to see for myself if something was really happening regarding the construction of the CEPT. And yes, they have started to build a wastewater treatment plant to handle 25,000m³ per day. The wastewater volume at the moment from the tanneries in Hazaribagh is currently around 22,000m³ per day.

Some tanners see the relocation as a good opportunity, for example Momtazul Karim Ansari Russel from Karim Leather. He sees the move as a great opportunity to set-up a modern tannery with new business possibilities for the future. There are also other voices who worry about their future competitiveness in terms of increasing costs for the wastewater treatment and the stoppages in production during the relocation.

Some local government people state that they want to see the relocation to be complete by the end of 2014, but to relocate such amount of tanneries (around 127) in a country such as Bangladesh will take a while. In my opinion, the first tannery will open in the new tannery district in Savar in 2016 at best.  

I come back to the rickshaws as a good example of the small steps being taken forward in Bangladesh. When I first visited in 2012, all the rickshaws were driven by manpower. Nowadays you can see slowly more and more driven by battery.

How fast change is possible in a country like Bangladesh where the most of the people are uneducated and do not really think about or consider environmental issues is limited. The world is watching and criticising the current condition of the tanneries in Dhaka, especially Hazaribagh. But remember one thing! So long as consumers want to buy the cheapest products possible without asking too many questions about where and how they were made then places such as Dhaka in developing countries will continue to exist.

New tannery area in Savar
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