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Chaitanya Kalbag

The author is former Editor, Reuters Asia, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindustan Times, and Editor of Business Today

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Hell For Leather

Shutting Kanpur’s tanneries has not helped the Ganga much

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‘Hell for leather’ means to run very fast, but the leather industry in and around Kanpur has nowhere to run. Hundreds of tanneries and manufacturing units in Kanpur’s Jajmau quarter, and the clusters of Banthar and Unnau as you drive towards Lucknow, are tottering as they try to balance between gau-mata and Mother Ganga. 

Both the industry and the government have failed, over many decades, to develop clean, ecologically friendly standards. Yet, despite the Uttar Pradesh Leather Industries Association (UPLIA) saying it is under siege and the Yogi Adityanath administration’s seeming indifference, things are not so dire.

India’s leather and leather product exports slipped only 2.4 per cent to $3.89 billion in April-December 2018 year-on-year. This is a very small fraction, 1.6 per cent, of India’s total merchandise exports of $245.44 billion in the same nine-month period. Chennai and Kolkata are also major leather-producing centres; Kanpur’s tanneries, many small in size and employing a few dozen workers, mainly process buffalo and goat skins.    

Kanpur’s pollution is not caused only by the tanneries. The city’s three million crowded inhabitants have been neglected by successive state governments. Kanpur has decrepit infrastructure, appalling roads and shocking sewerage; it produces about 450 million litres a day (MLD) of sewage, only a third of which is processed and mostly flows down turbid and open nullahs.  Besides sewage, the Ganga near Kanpur is also befouled by paper and sugar mills and poorly regulated factories.  

The tanneries agreed many years ago to process their own waste water before it was discharged into the river.  A series of four interceptor stations was meant to separate solid waste before sending the untreated water to a Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP).  Over the years, however, the system has been overwhelmed by the waste. A second CETP is planned but funding has not been finalised.

Pilgrims bathing in the river, as well as bodies and ash from cremations, all add to the ocean of pollution that pours into the sacred water.  This year, the UP Government ordered the closure of all tanneries for three months from mid-December in view of the Kumbh Mela.  UPLIA President Anwarul Haq said this came as a shock because the tanneries used to cease operations three days before each of the six shahi snans or holiest bathing days that punctuate the Kumbh starting from Makar Sankranti on January 15 and stretching until March 4.

The total shutdown of between 264 and 400 tanneries, depending on whom you speak with, led to thousands of casual workers migrating to other employment. The wood in the tanks where hides are first chemically treated is drying and cracking with disuse. And the CETP is still choked by ‘regular’ sewage from Kanpur’s open drains.

It seems like Mission Impossible. The central government committed Rs 20,000 crore over five years to end-2020 for cleaning the Ganga, but the Namami Gangé project has been slow and largely ineffectual. 

Only Rs 6,820 crore has been released since 2011-12, of which merely Rs 5,449 crore has been spent. Close to another Rs 20,000 crore has been sanctioned for 131 sewerage projects along the 2,500 km-long river, but only 560 of a planned 3,083 MLD of new sewage treatment capacity is up and working, and only 2,268 of 4,871 km of sewerage lines have been laid.

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kanpur Leather Industry magazine 22 december 2019