The roads are empty and the local market closed in Kanpur’s Jajmau locality, with around 130 of its 249 registered tanneries ordered shut due to the Kumbh Mela and the production at others cut by half.
One month into the order, and with 60 more days to go till they can begin operations, after the Kumbh Mela ends, the owners say their overseas orders for leather products are moving to other markets, in primarily Pakistan and Bangladesh.
At least 2 lakh people are employed in these units. Most are daily-wage workers and migrants, and many have gone back home.
“This is happening for the first time. Earlier the government shut the tanneries for three-four days before every holy snaan (bath) during Kumbh. We always followed this as we know Kumbh is related to the religious sentiments of our Hindu brothers. But three months is too much. Jajmau has a turnover of around Rs 7,000 crore yearly and that has been hit,” says Hafizur Rahman, president of the Small Tanners Association and the owner of H Rahman Tanning Industries.
The Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s (UPPCB) regional officer, Kanpur, Kuldeep Mishra, says the order against the tanneries followed a Jal Nigam report showing that effluents were ending up in the Ganga. The units in Jajmau, Unnao city and Banthar (Unnao) were told to shut down from December 15, 2018, to March 15, 2019.
Of the 402 tanneries registered in Jajmau, only 249 are operational. Rahman says losses over the past few years hit business.
In December, following petitions by Rahman Industries Limited and Mirza International Limited, the Allahabad High Court permitted two of their tanneries to operate, on the condition that they ensured that their effluents did not go into the Ganga.
The other tannery owners say they are either too scared to go to court, or dependent on government infrastructure for the treatment and disposal of their waste, unable to promise no discharge in the Ganga. Rahman Industries Ltd and Mirza International Limited do both primary and secondary treatment of effluents on their own.
An ‘environment consultant’ with Rahman Industries Limited, Rajiv Ranjan Pandey, says that to ensure there are no slip-ups, they have installed web cameras at exits of their effluents. R D Kaushik, the Chief General Manager of Mirza International Limited, claims it is the domestic waste going directly into the Ganga that is much more harmful. “We have spent a great deal on creating an infrastructure to treat all our effluents.”
Rahman says the shutdown hurts them more than just losses in terms of money or workers. “The UPPCB has also sealed half the tanning drums in these units. The drums are made of wood and if not used for three months, they will start leaking and would be of no use. A drum is worth lakhs of rupees,” he adds. The tanning drums are used to rotate leather through many operating steps in a tannery.
Ashraf Rizwan, the spokesperson of the Uttar Pradesh Leather Industries Association (UPLIA), says there are 42 big tanneries in Unnao, and the situation there is almost similar. “Collectively, all tanneries coming under the UPLIA give a turnover of around Rs 1,000 crore per year,” he says.
The owner of a tannery who doesn’t want to be named says that behind the shutdown is an attempt by the Jal Nigam to cover its tracks. “There are four pumping stations in Jajmau to collect effluents and treat them. In September, the Jal Nigam was given around Rs 18 crore to repair all their pumps before Kumbh, but they did not do so in time. Now we are being made the scapegoat. They have also cut the electricity of several tanneries. Several workers and their families live in these tanneries and now they are without power,” says the owner.
Adds Mohammad Arshi, a tannery owner, “The government appears to be killing two birds with one stone… More than 90 per cent of the tannery owners and around 75 per cent of their workers are Muslims… On one side they are taking jobs from one particular community, and on the other they can claim to be punishing the ‘sinners’ of the Ganga… I do not think closing the tanneries is going to clean the Ganga.”
The UPPCB’s Mishra admits that while the Ganga water has become significantly better in the last one month and is now fit for bathing, it needs to be investigated what role the closure of tanneries has played. “All the tanneries are shut and still the amount of effluents is very high. These effluents are domestic in nature,” Mishra says.