Let us go back to when in 2003 it was decided that the tanneries operating in the Hazaribagh tannery area had to move because of the excess of pollution and the lack of effluent collection and treatment in the area. The cost of the relocation project was estimated at US$48 million of which 43% would be borne by the Bangladesh Government and 57% by the tanneries via a loan. The area would include an effluent treatment plant of which the cost was estimated at $1.3 million.

With these figures, red flags should have been raised all over the place, because the budgeted figure for the CETP is laughable. Over time the amount for the CETP increased to $40 million. Now, with $40 million a lot can be done provided of course that all $40 million is used for the purpose they were intended for. It is common knowledge that a large percentage of the dedicated amount likely found its way into a variety of pockets, and that is one of the reasons why a Chinese supplier was contracted and why the CETP is not working as intended. On paper, the Government intended to buy a Ferrari, but it was equipped with a Fiat 500 engine to create the cache of certain funds for distribution. Now everybody has become aware that the Ferrari does not have the specs that the buyers thought it would have.

Start-up delays

Without considering the various delays in the finishing and start-up of the plant, the CETP issues came to light immediately after the first tanneries moved to Hemayetpur and it could not process the effluent as demanded, also because the infrastructure of the network of pipes from the tanneries to the plant was totally and unforgivably under-dimensioned, something immediately observed by European experts who visited the area before the pipes were even put into the ground. But nobody listened to them! The chrome recovery units were not and are still not operating. The Bangladeshi tanners became aware that they would not qualify for an LWG audit, let alone be awarded a medal because the first and most important parameter of the LWG audit, the treatment of the tannery effluent, was non-compliant by a very long way.

In the meantime, sludge and trimmings were dispersed untreated in the open air in fields close to the CETP, another no-go for LWG, recreating the unsustainable and dangerous situation seen previously in Hazaribagh with the difference that it took Hazaribagh decades to deteriorate whereas Savar needed less than three years. The Dhaleshwari river, next to the CETP, which provided abundant fish for the population along its banks has become the recipient of the practically untreated tannery effluent and is almost void of fish and presenting a clear danger for public health downstream.

In 2019, the Government decided that tanneries could construct their own individual effluent treatment plant, but until now none have actually started construction as the BSCIC, Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation, a Government agency that was awarded the management the Savar Tannery Estate and which was closely involved in its conception and execution, is  creating hurdles for individual treatment plants for some tanneries, rather than facilitate them to become compliant with the ruling effluent legislation. Meanwhile BSCIC was forced to hand over the management of the Tannery Estate CETP to a group of tanners, but this only created more discussions and less decisions. The Managing Director of this group is a retired army officer who knows very little about tanneries.

Dhaleshwari river pollution

The Government itself is not very helpful either. The Government has several project proposals in hand that aim at repairing the damage done by the present CETP, which needs to be upgraded and expanded to perform as it should. In January 2018, the Government had at least one complete project proposal in hand that would have transformed the present disaster into a plant that would be compliant with international norms at a cost of about €25 million and that could be realized within a period of 30 months.

In short, if the proposal would have been accepted, the Hemayetpur CETP would be working today in full compliance, and the Savar tanneries would be eligible for LWG and other audits. The clock continues to tick and each day that there is no decision to turn the CETP disaster into a success story, the Dhaleshwari river becomes more and more polluted and the dumping grounds of the fleshings and trimmings continue to let the harmful untreated sludge penetrate the ground and reach the ground water levels, adding worse to bad. Each day the environment is more and more damaged and may reach a point of no return as happened in Hazaribagh, ruining the huge investment made by more than a hundred tanneries by relocating from Hazaribagh to Savar.

Closure not an option

The call to temporarily close the Savar area is a no-go as the tanneries that invested a huge amount of money to move from Hazaribagh to Savar would be bankrupt as they have huge debts with their banks, and let’s not forget they have a workforce to maintain. Who is going to maintain the thousands of families if the area shuts down? The government must understand that the Savar CETP is finished as it is, but it is non-functional, hence it needs to be updated and integrated. That’s why they should put money on the table to make this happen and avoid that the money lining peoples pockets!

It is not surprising that the Government of Bangladesh has cancelled 30 years of progress in value addition out of desperation of the sinking export performance of the leather industry and piles of raw hides rotting away. It has allowed eight tanneries to export wet-blue, lifting for them the export tax on wet-blue, just to keep some exports running and avoid raw hides from being dumped, but also this is not a solution, because the production of wet-blue is the most polluting part of the tanning process.

With the LWG demanding traceability of the origin of wet-blue supplied to third parties, buyers of wet-blue from the Hemayetpur tanning cluster will face the same issues as the tanners at the origin in Bangladesh: no compliance and hence no LWG certification. In short, tanneries that want to be certified cannot buy from sources that are non-compliant. I do not think that brands will be fooled either. They now demand traceability of their products and the origin of non-compliant wet-blue cannot be hidden.

The Savar story has shown that you can construct a tannery cluster and export policy only with competence and honesty, if you want it to succeed. There is still time to correct the errors made, but decisions need to be made quickly in the interest of the local leather community and the country, not in the interest of individuals or groups of individuals. My wish for the Savar tanneries is that all get together and just think in terms of getting things done by honest competent professionals without further delay. Where there is a will, there is a way!