Ground report from Kanpur: ‘Adharma’ in Yogi Raj in UP

Tanneries in Kanpur, shut down in December, are unlikely to be re-opened before the elections get over. But the Ganga remains polluted with sewage flowing into the river. But nobody is accountable

PTI Photo (File)
PTI Photo (File)

Vivian Fernandes

Adharma is stalking the land that has a monk as chief minister.

The 240 tanneries at Jajmau, Kanpur that were closed on 26 December so that pilgrims could have a cleaner dip at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna at Prayagraj (Allahabad) during the Maha Kumbh mela continue to remain closed though the event ended on 4 March.

The tannery owners do not know when their plants can re-open; they are losing customers, business has shifted, migrant workers have returned to their villages and those that remain are struggling to earn a livelihood.

“Our self-confidence has been broken,” says Feroz Alam, of Merit Leather Finishers and an Executive Committee Member of the cluster’s Small Tanners Association (STA). “We either have to take to the streets or kill ourselves,” he says.

District Magistrate Vijay Vishwas Pant told me about a month ago that the administration has recommended opening of the tanneries to the state government.

Ashraf Rizwan, Director of Homera Tanning Industries, who represents the Jajmau units at the National Green Tribunal, says the administration has thrice recommended lifting the closure order. The tannery owners were under the impression that their plants would be allowed to reopen from 15 March.

They say Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had made such an announcement; one does not know whether he indeed did so. Towards the end of March STA members were at the state secretariat in Lucknow purportedly tracking the relevant file as it moved through various ministries to the chief minister’s desk. Later, they said a committee had visited Jajmau and found some inadequacies in effluent discharge. They think it is a stalling trick.

“Rest assured the tanneries will not be allowed to re-open, at least not before the elections,” says a retired senior Indian Administrative Officer who belongs to another state cadre. He hails from Kanpur but doesn’t live there.

By forcing the tanneries to shift out, the “cow credentials” of the Chief Minister will be boosted, he says. (Jajmau processes raw buffalo hide as the slaughter of cattle is disallowed in the state). The loss of jobs is a “bonus” because they would be mostly of those who are unlikely to vote for the ruling party at the state and the centre.

Jajmau is a British-era cluster. According to Alam the first unit came up in 1905. More units sprang up over a period of time to process abundant hide from cattle (till their slaughter was banned after Independence) and buffaloes.

Uttar Pradesh has the highest bovine population in the country. According to the 2012 Livestock Census, its share was 17 percent of the two species combined and 33 percent of that of buffaloes. As new entrants set up units and family businesses expanded and split, Jajmau became a 12 sq. km dusty sprawl of faceless and nameless sheds that processed hide and discharged effluent into the Ganga.

Tanning is highly polluting. The process of converting raw hide into wet blue takes three to seven days, and involves a host of chemicals: ammonium sulphate, bate powder, common salt, sulphuric acid, sodium formate, basic chromium sulphate and sodium bicarbonate.

“The effluent that is discharged (from the treatment plant) meets norms,” says Javed Iqbal, Regional Chairman of the Council for Leather Exports. “In Jajmau the treated effluent is discharged into an irrigation channel.”

During previous Kumbh melas, the tanneries would voluntarily close down their units three days before each of the six Shahi Snans (bathing ceremonies), as that is the time it takes for the river water to travel from Kanpur to Allahabad, says Taj Alam, Managing Director of Kings International, which is based in Unnao, about 20 km from Jajmau. He says the Jajmau units made a representation to the state government and pleaded that long closure would disrupt their businesses.

The cluster’s common effluent treatment plant became operational in 1992 ─ five years after the Supreme Court ordered it. It has a capacity of 36 million litres per day (MLD) of which 9 MLD is tannery waste and the rest is sewage. After the two are processed, the mix is discharged into fields.

When I visited Jajmau in the second week of March, I found the situation as described. The slate green discharge had a rotting odour and it was indeed flowing into a channel (I did not check whether it emptied). While rich in plant nutrients, one was not sure whether its load of disease-causing coliform microbes was within the limits deemed safe for growing vegetables.

The tanneries paid Rs 4 crore or 17.5 percent of the Rs 21 cr project cost to set up the treatment plant. They pay half the running cost, though they supply a third of the inflow. That’s fair as tannery effluent has a higher load of pollution.

The plant is being operated by UP Jal Nigam (to what degree of diligence and efficiency I am not sure). The plant being 25 years old is in need of an upgrade. The central government has approved a second effluent treatment plant for use only of the tanneries at a cost of a little over Rs 500 cr. It is meant to treat 18 MLD of tannery waste and 2 MLD of sewage that is generated by them. The Jajmau Tannery Effluent Treatment Association will operate it as a non-profit company. It is expected to be operational in two years. The current effluent treatment plant will only process municipal sewage.

The tanneries were first closed on 18 November. Alam says they were allowed to reopen on 8 December when the tanners were contemplating moving court. All except 26 were ordered shut on 26 December. The 26 tanneries are connected to pumping station No.1 from where there is no backflow into the Ganga. The closed tanneries are linked to three other pumping stations.

Kanpur has a sewage treatment plant but its capacity is lower than required. Since the daily generation of sewage cannot be stopped, and the Chief Minister desired that the Ganga remain clean during the Kumbh mela, the administration had no choice but to order the tanneries to back down so the effluent treatment plant could treat the city’s sewage.

The tannery owners believe they are being targeted as their community is not a support base of the ruling party at the Centre and the state. Soon after taking over as Chief Minister Adityanath ordered the closure of slaughterhouses on the grounds of cruelty to animals and violation of pollution control norms.

All the slaughterhouses supplying meat to the domestic market are owned by municipal corporations. It’s the government’s responsibility to set up modern, hygienic abattoirs and ensure they do not pollute; instead the community of butchers was punished. Meat shops were also forced to spruce up under threat of losing their licenses.

Mob lynchings for alleged beef possession, harassment of cattle traders, encounter killings by police, the forced closure of businesses selectively… injustice is being done to a community.

In 2002, a Prime Minister (vainly) told a Chief Minister to observe Raj Dharma.

In 2017, in response to the writ petition of a goat meat trader whose trading license was not being renewed, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court repeated that advice. It said the “balance of such competing rights,” to “health, culture and personal food habits,” is an issue that “need deliberation before any overt or covert action is taken.”

Despite the closure of tanneries, the Ganga remains polluted. According to the UP pollution control board, the dissolved oxygen at the ghat at Jajmau Bridge in February was 9.5 mg/litre, better than the tolerance limit for bathing. But the total coliform (bacteria) count was 7,000 million probable numbers (MPN/100 millilitres), much above the tolerance limit of 500. Of this the faecal coliform count was 4,800 MPN/100 ml.

In upstream Allahabad, dissolved oxygen in the Ganga was 9.8 mg/litre. The total coliform count was 17,000 MPN/100 ml and the faecal coliform count was 9,300 mpn/100 ml. Untreated sewage is flowing into the Ganga between the two cities and local governments are not being held accountable.

(The author blogs on www.smartindianagriculture.com)

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