Kanpur Part 3: And then what?

You can see why this has remained an intractable problem. There’s nothing beautiful about it. In fact, my sense of hopelessness keeps me company long after the 3 hour bumpy bus journey back to Lucknow.

There are many challenges to deploying any kind of waste treatment or remediation technology in the tannery district. Space is limited, and road access is difficult. Informal dwellings are constructed on site. These are periodically cleared by the government, but they are rebuilt rapidly afterwards.

In the short term, a means of treating primary tannery effluent that is relatively low cost would at least reduce the burden on waste treatment works. Although it would be expensive and potentially fraught with practical issues, relocating the tannery sites to a purpose built location with wastewater treatment capacity dedicated to the primary effluent treatment might be the long term answer.

Poor practice at the tanneries is inevitably the result of cost-cutting. For this, it is the supply chain we have to look towards. The UK third largest export market for Indian leather with a 12% share, according to the Indian Council for Leather Exports.

I had been told that when BMW went to Brazil they had insisted that the leather industries there met the same criteria as they would have to in Germany. However, Kanpur is more complex as there are many small operators who presumably sell the tanned hides through cooperatives or dealers, then to factories, making it virtually untraceable. Placing the responsibility on the middlemen to sell only responsibly produced leather is too much of a fallible system. In China, for the textile industry, the engineering firm I met operated a BOT model whereby the capital cost was spread out between users who paid to have their wastewater treated. It could be a start for large groups such as Arcadia to support this kind of scheme, and commit to purchasing leather only from this site. As consumers, how much environmental information should we request?

On the other hand, this removes responsibility from the environmental legislators and regulators – they need to be tougher and more agile when it comes to clamping down on polluting industries.

In a move to promote growth, the new environmental minister has decreed that “red tape” is to be cut, and industries will be encouraged towards monitoring their own compliance. While the rhetoric is there – a direction from the Central Pollution Control Board to implement real-time monitoring of effluent from 744 industries by March next year – I question the resources. Who watches the watchmen? How this will be enforced, who will pay for such sophisticated equipment (nevermind calibrate and validate it in this timeframe)? Exactly what the CPCB can do with this information will be interesting. By no means do I wish this to fail, but it strikes me as horrifically unrealistic.

'wet blue' hides awaiting collection in Kanpur

‘wet blue’ hides awaiting collection in Kanpur

In all of this, I am not telling you anything new, anything that hasn’t been told before. Please take a look at the Ecofriends website to see how little has changed since their early reports in 2002. Or take a look at this brief damning summary of the GAP, written in 2005. The point is by telling it again, the profundity of the problem, and the magnitude might become apparent. For me it was a tough lesson. While bioremediation could play a part in site restoration, focussing solely on that is not useful. The example of USAB is instructive – it isn’t a terrible technology, but the reasons for selecting this for Kanpur were not compelling. What Kanpur, and the Ganga, really needs is a push to implement tanning industry best practice. That, and a functional sewage treatment system.

One of the most terrible, and poignant moments during the visit with Ecofriends was at the end of the first afternoon in Kanpur. I asked if we could trace the wastewater path from tannery to pumping station to treatment plant and irrigation channel. We took a backstreet, where pastel pink and mint-green houses backed onto one of the filthiest ditches on the planet. The sour, fetid stench from the grey-blue wastewater making its path to the Ganga was nauseating, the banks flanked with plastic litter. Pretty young girls in saris lingered around. My guide said that the photographers preferred this part as they could take pictures of them against the backdrop. They contemplated my camera, probably expecting likewise, maybe expecting a few rupees in exchange. A sickening transaction. I couldn’t take a photo, I could barely look them in the eye.

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