Toxic tanneries

A major site of the famous 1857 rebellion against the British, Kanpur is steeped with history dating back to even before the Mughals came to rule India.

Today this UP city on the banks of the Ganges is noted for its leather industry and home to over 400 tanneries dumping 450 million litres of toxic waste, most of it untreated, into the holy river.

It is estimated that only 160-170 million litres of tannery sewage laden with toxic chemicals and heavy metals such as chromium, cadmium, lead, arsenic and cobalt are treated before being dumped into the river.

Rakesh Jaiswal, founder and executive secretary of a non-profit group Eco Friends, has been monitoring the Ganges for nearly 30 years in Kanpur.

He said there were no new structures of any function after the first phase of the Ganga Action Plan, which was the oldest Ganges cleanup project that began in 1986. The launch of the subsequent second phase of the action plan has largely been dubbed as a failure.

Jaiswal says all the functioning treatment plants were built under the first phase. “But none of the plants undertaken since then or under other cleanup projects, have been finished.”

He said a 210 MLD treatment plant was still under trial but could not be tested properly since it was not getting enough sewage, of which there is plenty being dumped into the river!

While there is a need for the government to act urgently, Jaiswal says it is important to move beyond treatment plants to tackle water pollution. He says under another new cleanup program called Namami Ganga, there should be more emphasis on restoring the ecological flow of the river that is crucial for diluting toxins.

Jaiswal expressed his exasperation at diversion of the Himalayan waters of the Ganges. “I am not sure if even a few drops of real Ganga water reach Kanpur. We have hardly any water during the dry months when pollution is much more visible.”

He said, “There hasn’t been any change or improvement on that front for years.”

However, the 36 treatment plants currently being run jointly by government and tannery owners have only complicated matters since costs and treatment operations are divided.

The tanners are responsible for primary treatment before releasing the toxic water, while the government is responsible for operating the treatment plant. This often leads to both parties shrugging off their responsibility and blaming each other for the pollution.

“I think these industries are the polluters and so they should own up to the responsibility of treating their waste,” said Jaiswal.

The environment activist said the industries should be made responsible for cleaning up their mess. “Why should the government clean up their mess?”

But leather processors and manufacturers complain of harassment.

General secretary of the Small Tanners Association at Jajmau, Kanpur’s ‘tannery central,’ said each and every tanner has a primary treatment unit and not a single factory releases water directly into the river. “We pay nearly INR 1.4 million (USD 21,000) every month to run the central treatment plant,” said Qazi Naiyer Jamal. “The focus rather should be on the other 49 drains that empty sewage into the river.”

Health impacts

Regardless of who should own up to the blame, the resulting health impacts are undeniable, however.

24-year-old Anjali Dhanvik living in Jajmau’s Shitla Bazaar since her childhood is one of the thousands of people who suffer. She says the heavy pollution and acrid smell is not a problem anymore. “We have become used to it. We have been living amid all that for years.”

“We have become used to it. We have been living amid all that for years.”

But she says the problem with this pollution is that it is causing physical problems and chronic illnesses for some. “Most of us suffer from different types of stomach problem and respiratory diseases.”

The Indian journal of occupational and environmental medicine states that a basic tanning pigment, chromium is a major health risk. It said that a high morbidity of about 40 percent compared to the usual 20 percent is correlative with the high exposure to chromium and its incidence in the blood stream. Exposure to chromium is also behind the higher morbidity of people living in the area said a research, which found respiratory illnesses to be positively correlated with the exposure to chromium.

According to a 2013 survey of India’s Central Pollution Control Board, Kanpur is home to about 475 of the total 764 ‘grossly polluting’ industries that have started operating along the Ganges. The survey points to this belt as the one ‘requiring maximum attention.’

The survey found that the 400 tanneries of Jajmau in Kanpur account for about 50 million litres of waste every day.

While it is mandatory for tanneries to set up effluent treatment plants, most of them are allegedly lying idle.

Jaiswal’s allegation that many tanneries discharge waste directly into the river echoes with a report of the pollution control board’s, which states: “It has been observed that the primary treatment … is not satisfactory.”