Rizwan Nadri is a self-proclaimed Narendra Modi bhakt. “I credit his government at the Centre for approving a 20 million-litres-per-day (MLD) common effluent treatment plant (CETP), which will give us a new lease of life,” states this 34-year-old owner of Nadri Tanning Industries.
His three tanneries are among the 241 in Kanpur’s Jajmau leather cluster, forced to shut down by the Yogi Adityanath-headed BJP government in Uttar Pradesh as part of its stated goal to keep the Ganga clean, especially during the Ardh Kumbh Mela season from January 15 to March 4. “We were ordered not to run from November 20, even before the Mela’s start. The Mela is over, but we’re still awaiting permission to re-start,” says Nadri, whose three tanneries can process up to 60 hides each per day for converting into finished leather.
The combined daily processing capacity of Jajmau’s tanneries is around 18,000 hides, while ranging from five to 750 for individual units. They engage over one lakh persons, in addition to the 3 lakh or so employed in downstream value-added industries such as car and domestic leather upholstery, safety and fashion shoes, sandals and slippers, saddlery goods, belts and bags.
Nadri, however, does not blame Modi for the industry’s travails. “The Rs 617-crore CETP for Jajmau, approved in August 2018 and to be funded under the Centre’s Namami Gange (National Mission for Clean Ganga) programme, will address all concerns relating to discharge of wastewater from our tanneries into the Ganga,” he adds.
But this optimism isn’t shared by others, who even deny that Jajmau’s tanneries are a source of the holy river’s pollution.
“Not a single drop of our wastewater flows to the Ganga. We do primary treatment before it is taken via conveyance channels by four pumping stations to an already-existing 36-MLD CETP. This plant (established in 1994 and operated by the UP Jal Nigam) further treats 9 MLD of our tannery wastewater, along with 27 MLD of city sewage effluent. The entire treated water is, then, directed to two separate 11-km-long channels and used for irrigation by farmers in adjoining villages. Where’s the question of polluting the Ganga?,” asks a prominent Jajmau tannery owner, who did not wish to be named.
“Kanpur city generates roughly 375 MLD of sewage, of which nearly 150 MLD was until recently being discharged in untreated form through the Sisamau Nala (a 128-year-old open drain) into the Ganga. Here, we are generating hardly 10 MLD of wastewater, which is being treated and actually irrigating fields. Tanneries have become a convenient whipping boy,” he claims. The new 20-MLD CETP – which will exclusively treat tannery wastewater and also have a 70 kilolitres-per-day chrome recovery unit for basic chromium sulphate, the main chemical used in tanning – would take at least two years to come up. By then, “we would all have packed up”.
Jajmau, falling under the Kanpur Nagar Lok Sabha seat that votes on April 29, had 269 operational tanneries before November 20. Currently, only 28 of them, whose wastewater is being conveyed through a single functioning pumping station, are running.
The “whipping boy” theory is also voiced by tanneries in the neighbouring Unnao constituency. This belt has two major leather clusters at Banthar and Dahi Chowki industrial area, apart from standalone tanneries of large firms such as Mirza Tanners and Rahman Industries that can each process 1,000-1,500 hides per day. Like Jajmau, the 27 tanneries in Banthar and 18 of Dahi Chowki have CETPs with respective capacities of 4.5 MLD and 2.15 MLD, with the likes of Mirza having their own captive primary, secondary and tertiary wastewater treatment-cum-chrome recovery facilities. The treated wastewater from Banthar CETP is discharged into the City Jail drain that meets the Ganga at Kanpur after about 10 km, while the same from Dahi Chowki goes to the Loni drain joining the river in Raebareli after travelling almost 150 km.
Yet, the tanneries at Banthar had to close from December 15 to March 15 and those in Dahi Chowki made to operate at 50 per cent of capacity. “Why are only tanneries being targeted? Why not also shut down all sugar mills, distilleries, paper/pulp and chemical units? The tanneries are discharging treated wastewater at worst, whereas nothing is being done about domestic effluent flowing from cities and towns all along the Ganga. Barring Kanpur, Varanasi, Allahabad (Prayagraj) or Patna, many don’t even have sewage treatment plants,” notes Taj Alam, managing director of Kings International Ltd, which has a fully-mechanised 200-hides-per-day tannery and saddlery factory at Dahi Chowki.
He estimates the Jajmau-Unnao region’s leather industry’s monthly turnover at Rs 4,000 crore, half of it from exports and the balance from domestic sales. The impact of tannery closures, particularly in Jajmau, would be massive.
“Hamara ghar ka chulha inhi se toh jalta hai (these units keep our home fires burning),” observes Ravi Valmiki, a sweeper at RK Tanners in Jajmau. He, along with Shiv Kumar Verma and Rinku Chaurasia, both fitters, are amongst the 10 workers still retained by their employer Fardeen Hussain. The latter’s tannery, with a daily processing capacity of 60 hides, previously engaged 60-plus people.
According to Feroz Alam, whose Merit Leather Finishers can process 110 hides per day, 85 per cent of Jajmau’s tannery owners are Muslims. The rest are Hindus. That includes Raja Singh Yadav of Raja Tannery, Kaushlesh Chandra Dixit of Triveni Tanners and Shagun Industries of Ram Kumar Nishad, who is also the Samajwadi Party candidate from Kanpur Nagar in the current Parliament elections.
“In the case of workers, 85 per cent are Hindus. Three-fourths of them are non-locals from places like Fatehpur, Barabanki, Gonda, Sultanpur, Allahabad, Azamgarh, Ghazipur, Ballia, Deoria and even Kishanganj in Bihar. The suppliers of chemicals – from chromium sulphate to lime, sodium metabisulphite and alum – are also mostly non-Muslim. It’s unfortunate that such a diverse industry is associated with a particular religion,” remarks Alam, a PhD in social psychology from Kanpur University.
But it’s not just leather. The tanneries get their raw buffalo hides mainly from modern slaughterhouses. UP has 41 integrated abattoirs-cum-meat processing plants, of which seven are in Unnao. These plants, set up after 2000, have enabled increased availability of quality hide that is freshly flayed, salted and folded for supply to tanneries. However, with the majority of tanneries shut, raw hide stocks in abattoirs, too, have piled up.
“Our units in UP are holding more than 3 lakh hides, when these shouldn’t normally exceed 50,000 at any given time. Earlier, the godowns weren’t keeping stocks beyond 2-3 days. Today, some are lying unsold for even four months and we have to regularly re-salt them to prevent putrefaction. And with the Centre clamping a 60 per cent duty on export of raw salted hides, our problems have further compounded,” points out Fauzan Alavi, spokesperson of the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters’ Association.
Abattoirs in Unnao are now selling “super extra-heavy” hides weighing over 45 kg at Rs 1,100-1,300. Five months ago, these fetched Rs 2,500-3,000. The rates for “extra-heavy” (35-45 kg) have, similarly, dropped from Rs 2,200-2,500 to Rs 900-1,000, while from Rs 1,800-2,000 to Rs 650 for “heavy” (25-35 kg) and from Rs 1,400 to practically zero for “medium” (15-25 kg) hides.
The ultimate impact of all this will be on farmers. As abattoirs slash prices and purchases of spent buffaloes, given no takers for raw hides, they may lose even this useful supplementary source of income. Nor would their cause be helped by Unnao’s sitting BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj declaring his intent to close down all abattoirs in the constituency, if re-elected.