Kanpur Part 2: Uncomfortable numbers

Unloved, unlovely, unloveable?

Kanpur has been firmly on the radar for those compiling “most polluted” lists for some time now. It is the subject of photo documentaries and BBC series. Despite the steady media interest in the tannery district of Jajmau, the problems persist. I went there, expecting to consider the issue of chromium laced wastewater, but this is only a fraction of the story.

Once a prosperous and strategically important city, in “the Manchester of the East” the textile factories now stand largely idle. It is probably worth unpicking the tangle of problems in Kanpur, because focussing solely on the tanneries does not really capture what has gone wrong. It’s a sorry tale of mismanagement, undercapacity in infrastructure, administrative failures, corruption and negligence involving a huge cast of characters. What is pretty clear is that at the end of the irrigation channel sits a village of people who are given a mixture of sewage and chromium to spread on their crops.

In the eighties, the Ganga Action Plan made a series of recommendations for Kanpur. Some of these have turned out to be catastrophic in a way the original authors could not have intended.

A barrage upstream of Kanpur has cut the flow of the Ganges into 1/21 of what it was previously. Given that the river is treated as a “drain, garbage depot and a morgue” according to Ecofriends’ Rakesh Jaiswal, you can see where the problems might begin to start. At the moment, 50MLD is abstracted  from the river for drinking water, and the government is seeking to take 1600MLD which will mean the river will slow to a trickle by the time it gets to the city.

Kanpur has three waste treatment plants, which have a total capacity of 170 million litres per day (MLD), but according to Rakesh. 500 MLD of wastewater is generated from the city, so there is already a serious shortfall. Due to infrastructure, in effect only 100 MLD is actually reaching the sewage treatment plants.

In terms of capacity for tannery waste, there is approximately 50 MLD of wastewater generated from this process, with a capacity of 9 MLD in Kanpur at centralised facilities.

In the original Ganga Action Plan, tanneries were required to install primary effluent treatment, which would reduce the burden on the subsequent waste treatment plants. Depending on who you talk to, this has been implemented with various degrees of success. The Pollution Control Board states that more than a hundred tanneries who contravened this recommendation were shut down. Indeed, but it is clear that the levels of chromium pouring into the waste treatment plants are still above safe levels.

The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) for Kanpur intended that treated wastewater could flow out to villages via irrigation channels, and this could be used by farmers to water crops. This made a big supposition: that the wastewater treatment upstream would be effective, and that accountability for ensuring this would be clear. Failure at each stage has a knock on effect.

A technology known as Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket (UASB) was chosen for secondary waste treatment at one of the three sewage works. It relies on anaerobic bacteria to degrade waste, and in theory producing methane which can be used to generate electricity, and sludge for fertiliser. Lured by the promise of European co-funding and the new technology, the UASB plant was selected and installed as part of the GAP. It was supposed to be a “low cost” solution compared to conventional oxidation ponds which require a large surface area.

Given that primary effluent treatment by tanneries is not happening to a sufficient standard, the UASB plant cannot perform as intended, as the bacterial consortia cannot tolerate the levels of pollutants entering the system. Aside from chromium, tannery effluent contains a cocktail of other chemicals: nitrates, sulphates, salt, lime, preservatives such as pentephenol, acids and dyes. As early as 1986, the Dutch engineering firm commissioned to report on the plant stated that levels of sulphate were so high as to be toxic to the methanogens, and that tannery effluent had to be mixed at least 1:1 with domestic wastewater. Later analyses have considered the technology a mistake, while acknowledging that high chromium is an issue. A study in 2004 began to quantify some of the risks to those living in the disposal area.

An independent study conducted by Ecofriends in 2002 with IIT Kanpur showed that levels of chromium VI in the irrigation water exceed 80 mg/L. Again, as I’d heard in Yunnan, facts like these are not always greeted with enthusiasm. A controversy ensued with the government.

While it is the most evident around the city, wastewater is only part of the problem. Most of the chromium actually ends up in the sludge produced by the tanneries. This sludge is taken offsite and dumped or buried. The chromium leaches from this into the groundwater. Chromium has a value, and can be reused. The reasons/excuses for this not being done vary: electricity supply is inconsistent (it is true that there are frequent power cuts); cost of equipment, smaller tanneries relying on centralised facilities who do not recover the chromium. Rakesh explains that the designated sludge dumping areas are out of the city, and rather than transport the waste, some tanneries dump illegally around town.

Proper epidemiological studies on the effect of the irrigation water, and polluted groundwater have yet to be conducted in Kanpur. Evidence of long-term chromium poisoning is so far anecdotal, or from small scale studies, with reports of stomach complaints, skin problems and reproductive problems in those who live nearby. Rakesh shows me photographs of ulcers and sores caused by contact with the irrigation water. Poor health of livestock has also been mentioned: cattle die early, and have fewer calves than normal. Farms and villages in this area suffer a social stigma, as their produce is considered contaminated.


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