Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Bribe by any Other Name

   Human Rights Watch reports that the infamous businesses responsible they have coined Bangladesh's "Toxic Tanneries" have been fined for their excessive pollution. As extensively documented by Human Rights Watch, and mentioned many times by the EcoPol Project, these Hazaribagh tanneries are the source of immense environmental damage to the region, their employees, and anyone living nearby. An official in Bangladesh's Environment Department is quoted as having told Human Rights Watch that there exists neither monitoring nor enforcement of the tanneries' 
   In spite of this, fines were levied against two of the tanneries, the Bay Tanneries and the Ayub Brothers tannery, charged $50,000, and $25,000 respectively. Human Rights Watch is unsure of why these two tanneries were chosen to be the recipients of fines when nearly  150 tanneries in the Hazaribagh district of Dhaka collectively discharge nearly 21,000 cubic meters of waste, without any pre-treatment to abate the levels of toxins.  These toxins are responsible for the painful dermatological diseases as well as the respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses all too common in Dhaka. Nonetheless, Ayub Brothers and Bay Tanneries were singled out and fined for not having effluent treatment plants that would filter their wastewater and diminish the amount of poison being pumped out by their leather processing facilities.
   90-95% of the tanneries in Bangladesh are located within the Hazaribagh neighborhood of Dhaka, employing between 8,000 and 12,000 people, and the excessive toxic waste being excreted by these tanneries has led to a foul, chemical smell in the public water and air. In this slum, corrugated tin is often used as construction material, but the quantity of pollutants present causes the metal to deteriorate at a rapid rate. Residents report that within six months, the metal is corroded and requires replacement. It is hard to hear about such horrid conditions, and yet, we hear about them, or others similar, on a nearly daily basis.
Children in a Hazaribagh Tannery. Source: AP
   But as hard as these atrocities are to hear about, it is far harder to understand why so few tanneries were fined when conditions such as these are so prevalent. It is harder to understand why only two tanneries were chosen to pay such negligibly low numbers when so many tanneries are responsible and making such monumentally massive sums of money. No doubt, it is far harder to try and comprehend the small sum charged than it is to read the depictions of such deplorable conditions. It is hard to attempt to comprehend why so little is done in a neighborhood where there are so many thousands for whom employment is synonymous with poisoning, and where so many tens of thousands more are essentially punished because they happen to live within the pollution and poverty provided by the neighborhood leather industry without receiving any information given about the potential harmful effects of the chemical compounds they have as neighbors.
   In a little over a year, between June of 2011 and July of 2012, these tanneries exported almost $663,000,000 in leather goods. Yet the total fines that were levied against the two tanneries unlucky enough to actually receive a penalty added to a paltry $75,000.  Not only that, but although Bangladesh's Environment Department assessed the fine, there is no information given about how the money will be used, about whether the fines will be used to help construct waste treatment plants or, at the very least, about whether the fines would repeat for those two tanneries each year that they are out of compliance, or whether other tanneries will be fined in future if they fail to produce wastewater treatment plants. The Environment Department also failed to explain the reasoning behind deciding upon such small sums for the fine. 
   To be an efficient deterrent, fines for being out of compliance with environmental standards are there to encourage businesses to adhere to those policies. The amounts fined should to be large enough that they produce a substantially negative impact upon the profits of businesses fined. These fines should also be large enough that, upon performing a profit/loss analysis, each business would determine that the cheaper option is to simply comply with the environmental guidelines.
Worker at a Dhaka Tannery with Tannery Waste. Source: AP
   When considering the total devastation in the area, the immense loss of life, the damages and health issues caused, and the long term complications that will continue to arise in the region, these fines are far from fine. There was less than $100,000 charged in total, divided between two out of 150 tanneries, and likely to make so minor an impact upon their profit margins as to be almost non-existent. These negligible fines are certainly not enough to make the costs of installing and operating a wastewater treatment facility cheaper than paying fines. As the EcoPol project has detailed, bribery is a huge issue that surrounds the tannery industry.

   And it is for all these reasons that I cannot help but wonder if these "fines" are a bribe by any other name. The fines came just four months after Human Rights Watch's report on the Hazaribagh tanneries drew unparalleled levels of attention to their activities. The timing is questionable and has the markings of a PR cleanup attempt, rather than an environmental one. These fines, seemingly randomly assigned,  collected without disclosure about where the funds will be allocated, and shockingly small in comparison to the total profits of these companies, strike me as a new type of bribe. One that can be made above board instead of under a desk, in plain view, allowing the corrupt officials to receive their funds while appearing to be cracking down on environmental issues in their districts, while in actuality, continuing to allow business as usual, and profiting from the proliferation of pollutants, all the while pretending to be working against it.

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