UP govt action hits lakhs of tannery workers

It’s a bright January morning but a fog of gloom hangs over old Jajmau road near Kanpur. About 30 men, old and young, huddle in front of a small tea-shop, staring vacantly at a closed factory gate. It has been more than a month since the tanneries dotting the street where the workers were employed shut down, following UP government orders. Their patience, and resources, are now wearing thin.

Adding to the hopelessness is the realisation that it would be almost impossible to get work at least for two more months while the Kumbh Mela is on. The congregation of millions of devotees as well as tourists, which kicks off on January 15, will continue well into March.

Export business takes big hit
“It is not that the Kumbh Mela has not happened before. But never have the factories been closed for so long. We are running out of money for even food. Why doesn’t the government just ask us to commit suicide?” laments Shiv Prasad, who has been working in Jajmau for 10 years. Jajmau, which has about 400 tanneries employing over a lakh workers, is one of the three clusters hit by the UP government’s crackdown on tanneries to ensure that the Ganga remains clean during the Mela. The other two clusters are a few km away in Banthar and Unnao.

Not just tanneries but a number of meat exporting units, as well as leather goods factories, have been ordered shut too, in these areas.The loss, in terms of drop in production and exports, is roughly estimated at about ₹4,000 crore per month by the industry. “We export upholstery to the European Union and China. Our two units have been ordered closed and no production or exports is taking place for over a month. Our buyers are shifting to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam and there is no guarantee they will come back to us,” said Afsand Akhtar of Omega Tanneries.

Factory owners say that it is lack of adequate infrastructure, government’s failure to upgrade and build enough common effluent treatment plants (CETP), absence of logical planning to handle the situation and knee-jerk reaction of officials to even small problems which has led to their present predicament.

“Our troubles began on November 15, when the government closed all tanneries in Jajmau stating that it wanted to upgrade the CETP in the area. On December 8, the CETP re-opened but units were asked to operate at 50 per cent capacity. Then the series of letters started. On December 28, 114 tanneries were ordered shut as there was an overflow in a pumping station. Finally, only 93 tanneries were operational and now there is another letter from the pollution department dividing these into three groups and ordering that each group discharge their water only two designated days of the week,” said another tannery owner, who did not wish to be named.

As the tanneries in Jajmau are not big enough to hold water, the pollution control board’s latest directive means more units will shut shop. About 10 km from Jajmau is Banthar. Here, too, the streets wear a deserted look, with all tanneries closed down. The problem, according to Farhan Ajmal from Calico Trends in Banthar, is that the capacity of effluent treatment plants has not kept pace with the growth in production and business. “Didn’t the government know the speed at which the leather and associated industries have been growing? Proposals for upgrading existing effluent treatment plants are kept pending for years,” said Ajmal. Calico Trends is part of the Banthar Industrial Pollution Control Company, an initiative involving 42 units (of which 27 are operational), under which a CETP was set up in 2005.

However, tanneries that are using the CETP were asked to operate at 50 per cent capacity, as it was not meeting all the given norms and the Ministry of Environment did not approve a proposal for upgradation, Ajmal said. “It is not that the industries here do not want to stay clean. The supportive infrastructure has to be there,” he added.

Mountains of hide
Meat exporting units operating in the clusters, too, are facing a hard time as they have no idea what to do with the raw hides worth crores that can’t be sold to the tanneries during the Kumbh. “All these have been lying in the shed for over a month. I have no idea till what time these can be preserved and if we would suffer a total loss on these,” said Mujahid Aslam of Mash Agrofoods. An export duty of 60 per cent on hide makes it impossible for the meat industry to export it and repeated representation by the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association to the Centre for doing away with the levy has not yet yielded results.

It is not just the factories and the workers who have been hit by the shutdown. In fact, the entire local economy has been affected. “Tea-shops have closed down, small workshops servicing the tanneries have no work, delivery trucks are all in the parking and even the horse-tongas are standing idle,” pointed out Mohammad Rashid, another worker, who said that about half of the migrant labour had already gone back to their villages. “We used to provide 1,000 food packets to various factories in the area. But it has come down to almost nil,” said Mehfooz Umar from Baba Foods, Jajmau, a unit of the popular Biryani chain in UP.

People are helplessly waiting for the Kumbh to end so work can resume, but there is a fear that things may not be the same. “I used to run a small tannery and employed six people. With the order for closure, my earning has become zero and my workers have all gone back home. I have no idea whether I will get either my workers or my business back,” Kamar Iqbal from Haji Iqbal and Company summed up up with a frown.

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