Nowhere to hide: how Kanpur’s tanneries are struggling to stay afloat

Once renowned as an export powerhouse, Kanpur’s tanneries are perceived to be the primary source of industrial pollution in the Ganga. The author reports on the embattled industry’s struggle to stay afloat in the face of rising compliance costs and an increasingly hostile business environment.

A year into her marriage, Savita, 24, wishes she had never left her father’s home, which is in another part of Kanpur. She and her husband live in a house that overlooks a 20-ft. wide drain. Beginning at Shitla Bazaar, on the outskirts of Jajmau — a major cluster of tanneries in north-eastern Kanpur — the drain winds its way to an underground sewerage network that eventually empties out into the Ganga.

The stench from the drain’s blue-black contents is indistinguishable from the characteristic odour of sewage drains anywhere — the usual acrid assault of methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. Like most other drains, the one in Shitla Bazaar is also composed mostly of sewage and organic waste. But what marks it out are the hues of the effluents from the tanneries. “Sometimes the water turns red, sometimes green, depending on what dyes are being used to treat the animal hide,” says Savita, whose husband works at one of the tanneries.

Savita complains of repeated bouts of diarrhoea. Her nephew, a seven-month-old baby, who stays in the same house, is constantly sick. “I wish we had the means to move somewhere else. We have been pleading with the government to do something… people come here, take pictures and disappear,” she says.

The Shitla Bazaar drain is a catchment for several rivulets that can be seen snaking in and around the tannery cluster of Jajmau. At the periphery of one of the slums is an interceptor station — one of four — set up by the Jal Nigam, the Uttar Pradesh water authority. The station is a single room that serves as a power outlet for a network of pumps and treatment plants that filter out some of the solid waste such as remnants of animal skin, sludge and excreta. From here, the partially processed tannery sludge is sent for further treatment to a large Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) about 20 km away.

At the station, located a few feet from a mound of plastic bags and empty plastic Coke bottles, Akhilesh Pandey’s job is to coordinate a system of wheels and submersible pumps that filter and channel the waste. One of the sewerage pipes that is supposed to transport the effluent is broken. It extrudes a torrent of thick sludge which remains unprocessed and makes its way back into the drainage rivulets. “The trouble is that if we plug this pipe, then the filth will make its way into people’s homes and there will be a riot,” says Pandey, who has been employed by a private contractor to manage the drain. “There isn’t enough horse power in the motors to deal with the quantity of sewage being produced,” adds Pandey.

Kanpur reportedly generates 450 MLD (million litres a day) of sewage but can only treat around 160-170 MLD.

Only the tanneries?
In 2014, the newly elected Narendra Modi government announced a dedicated mission to clean the Ganga within five years. Called the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), the Delhi-based body has a ₹20,000 crore, non-lapsable corpus at its disposal to execute a range of initiatives to clean the 2,500-km-long river and some of its tributaries. In the last four years, the NMCG has marked out key ‘hotspots’ of polluted stretches. While the pollution caused by the disposal of waste into the river, poor sanitation by pilgrims who bathe in it, and the disposal of bodies into the river are well-known issues, the NMCG also drew attention to the infrastructural deficiencies that allowed millions of litres of untreated sewage and industrial effluent to be emptied into the river.

For instance, the government’s CETP, which can treat a maximum of 9 MLD of tannery waste and 27 MLD of sewage, was designed on the assumption that there were 175 tanneries in Kanpur. Today there are around 350. Therefore, these drains are overloaded by about 26 MLD of tannery waste, according to an audit ordered by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), in 2015. Consequently, a large part of the effluent generated by the city’s tanneries makes its way directly into the river without being treated.

By the NMCG’s estimates, pollution from industries — paper, sugar, distilleries and tanneries — constituted about 20% of the total pollution load. There were 1,019 industrial units spread between Allahabad, Patna, Varanasi and Kanpur. Of them, the tanneries of Kanpur — numbering 323 to 402 depending on the sources one goes by — have come under the spotlight as they constitute the largest single cluster of industries, concentrated in a 15 km stretch from Kanpur to Unnao.

A 10-minute drive from the pump house is Jajmau’s largest agglomeration of tanneries. Barricaded by large, iron gates, these comprise the ‘organised’ cluster of tanneries, some of which predate independent India. Inside one of them sits Nayyar Jamal, 60, surrounded by piles of court documents and peeling plaster.

A trained advocate, Jamal got into the tanning business courtesy his father. As the proprietor of Makhdoom Tanning Industries, he performs many roles: he manages an establishment of half a dozen workers, he has been a spokesperson for the leather industry, and is a historian of Kanpur’s tanning industry. “My father learnt the trade from working with the British. In 1969, he began his own business. I joined him and we have been in this industry for 40 years,” he says. “But today my sons aren’t keen on taking over, given the number of obstacles facing this business.”

Long legacy
Kanpur has a rich history with leather. It was an important military centre, and so there was always been a demand for uniforms, leather belts and shoes, and saddles for the cavalry. Further, the city’s salty water and a ready supply of bark from the Babul tree, which makes for a good tanning agent, were among the reasons why the tanning industry took strong roots in the city. Though linked to pollution now, the tanneries were once closely associated with the city’s floriculture industry.

The solids in the effluents that made their way out from the tanneries were filtered out and water from the Ganga was used to dilute them. This was routed, using a dedicated irrigation channel, to farmland where roses were cultivated. “That’s what the system was in my childhood,” says Jamal. From seven tanneries in 1947, the industry in Kanpur grew to 175 organised tanneries by 1992 — meaning they were part of an association and were, in a sense, also responsible for ensuring that the polluting effluents from the industry were kept in check.

Trouble began, according to Jamal, in 1984 when M.C. Mehta, an environmental activist and lawyer, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court claiming that the tanneries were emptying toxic, untreated effluents straight into the Ganga. As a result, the tanneries were mandated to install primary treatment facilities before they released water beyond their compound walls.

This, however, proved inadequate as a remedy, and in 1985, the government announced the first of its Ganga-cleaning drives, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP). Under the GAP, it established a CETP in Jajmau that was equipped to treat 36 MLD of polluted water. It was ‘common’ in the sense that it would use the sewage water to dilute the effluents from the tanneries. “It seemed like a good proposition. We tanners were asked to pay 17% of the capital costs and were told that there would be no operation and maintenance charges payable. Also, the plant was supposed to generate biogas and be self-sustaining. We paid. But once the plant started operations, we were slapped a huge bill and we went to court,” says Jamal.

That cycle of litigation, with the State and the tanneries each trying to pass the costs of running the plant to the other, has seen the tanneries gradually go into a slump. Jamal’s tannery, which produces 50 hides a day, is about half the size of a football field. It has two assembly lines but only a handful of workers were visible. They were loading raw hides into cavernous drums where the main processing of the animal skin takes place. The sections where the hides are dried before they go into subsequent stages of finishing remained unmanned. Stacks of semi-processed hide greeted you everywhere on the shop floor.

The lack of much activity on the shop floor was not because Jamal’s workers were on leave (it was the day before Bakrid) but because they had to be fired. About 80% of the largely unskilled labour employed by him were Dalits. The uncertainties in the trade and rising expenses — mostly to do with having to meet pollution-linked requirements — has sucked away his desire to run the establishment into his 70s. The tanneries, in his estimate, contribute to no more than 2% of the pollution load in the Ganga.

Convenient scapegoat
Matters came to a head in 2015 when the NGT said that there were “700 tanneries” in Kanpur that were responsible for almost all the industrial pollution. A team of officials from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the Uttar Pradesh pollution control board, and the State and Union Environment Ministries then visited tannery clusters, took water samples, inspected operations in some of the tanneries, and reported back to the NGT.

On the basis of their report, 98 tanneries were ordered shut. This triggered dharnas in Jajmau, and eventually some of them were allowed to be reopened. “We are always in a state of uncertainty. The costs of compliance and installing new equipment are constantly falling on us, and the revenue from the business doesn’t keep pace with these additional costs,” says Hafizur Rehman, Secretary, Small Tanneries Association, which represents about 65% of the tanneries located in Jajmau. Most tanneries here are medium and small enterprises with a processing capacity of less than 200 hides per day.

The majority of the proprietors of Jajmau’s tanneries are Muslim. Jamal, however, denies that it could be a reason for the tanneries being singled out as the biggest source of pollution. Since 1985, the government has been attempting to rid the river of the millions of litres of sewage that are dumped into the river. But given its continued failure, it wanted a convenient scapegoat, and it chose the tanneries, is how he understands the situation.

Shahabuddin Ahmed, whose establishment, Benzooni International, is a short stroll from Jamal’s, makes frequent trips to Cologne, Germany, to promote his leather products firm. But his visits in recent times have been depressing and futile, he says. In the last few years, there has been a growing impression among European buyers that India is no longer a reliable supplier of leather. The ban on cow slaughter and the attacks on transporters of cattle are among the factors that have worsened business conditions, he says. “We too drink the waters of Gangaji. Even for us [Muslims], it is not possible to use polluted water for drinking, bathing or prayers. What we’re observing for some years now is a sustained campaign… that it is the tanneries that are somehow responsible for the bulk of the pollution. What about the distilleries, and the sugar and paper industries? They are not targeted as we are,” says Ahmed. The college-educated businessman, who is nearly 40, says he is considering a career change.

‘We are the scavengers’
Half an hour on the highway that connects Kanpur and Lucknow lies another industrial hub. Here, in Unnao, the tannery industry consists of establishments that had begun in Jajmau but subsequently grew larger, and with greater processing capacity. King’s International, one of the largest leather establishments in the city, has a green campus where date palms and other exotic trees line an avenue right up to the main offices. Placards proclaim the importance of saving trees. Between the manicured lawns are a chromium recovery plant as well as sewage treatment infrastructure. Uniformed workmen register entries and exits at the gates.

“We are the scavengers,” says Taj Alam, managing director of the firm. “What should end up as dead putrefying waste is taken by us and converted into useful goods. And yet we are made to suffer for it.” In the 25 years that the firm has been in existence, today was “the worst time ever for his business,” he says. For decades, the Uttar Pradesh government and the tanners have had a compact: During the Kumbh Mela, the tanners would cease operations three days before each of the specific holy days during the three-month long religious festival. This year, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath ordered that all tanneries should cease operations between December and March to prevent “any pollutant from being emptied out into the river”. For Alam, this is nothing short of a death sentence for the industry. To shut shop entirely would mean an average revenue loss of ₹1,000 crore per month for the industry.

In his spacious office, there is a panel of clocks that are set to time zones in London and some other international destinations. “It is ironic that the Central government heralds the leather industry as one of the ‘Make in India’ success stories but continues to fling at us dis-incentive after dis-incentive. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and China have emerged as massive competitors and India is steadily losing business to them. In a few years we will all be finished,” he says, and cites the recent beef ban as one of the factors that have made supply chains unpredictable and hit exports.

Akhilesh Tripathi looks after the complex of sewage and industrial treatment plants at Jajmau. He is one of the several supervisors employed by the contractors who have been roped in by the State pollution control board to maintain the CETP and complains of being asthmatic and prone to infections.

The CETP — located close to the right bank of a stretch of the Ganga — is an open-air complex of large tanks, and water filtration stations. Created with assistance from the Dutch government and commissioned in 1994, the system uses sewage water to dilute the chemical wastes from the treatment plant. It also has dedicated plants for the treatment of municipal sewage, with a combined capacity of 130 MLD. The water from all the plants that make up the CETP is released not into the river but into the fields of villages nearby. Sewage water cleansed of chemicals is high in plant nutrients and so adds to the top soil. But the CETP officials say villagers have begun complaining now that inadequate treatment of the waste water is destroying their fields.

“There are two problems here,” says Tripathi, “The plant is expected to treat 9 MLD of effluent from the tanneries. But the sewage carrier system is broken. So the drains don’t bring enough of the effluents to be treated. On the other hand, there are problems with electricity. So the plant doesn’t work at the capacity it is supposed to.”

In spite of the double shifting, there are no permanent employees, he says. The workers have no access to gas masks, safety equipment or medical insurance in spite of having to work in the “corrosive” plants. Now the NMCG is all set to unveil a new CETP plant in Jajmau later this year.

“We are setting up a new 20 MLD effluent treatment plant that will take care of the increase in tanneries since 1992,” says Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, Director-General, NMCG. “What’s new is that, for the first time, we are including explicit clauses in the contract that require the operator of the plant to ensure that the entire system is well maintained. It is the operator’s responsibility to ensure that the effluents released by individual tanneries make their way to the treatment plant, and both the costs and profit margins for the plant are included in the contract.”

Tripathi, however, is unimpressed. “The existing plant itself is under-utilised,” he points out. “How can a new one help?”

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