how Kanpur’s tanneries are struggling to stay afloat
A year into her marriage, Savita, 24, wishes she had never left her father’s home, which is in another part of Kanpur. She and her husband live in a house that overlooks a 20-ft wide drain. Beginning at Shitla Bazaar, on the outskirts of Jajmau — a major industrial cluster of tanneries in north-eastern Kanpur — the drain winds its way to an underground sewerage network that eventually empties out into the Ganga.
The stench from the drain’s blue-black contents is indistinguishable from the characteristic odour of sewage drains anywhere — the usual acrid assault of methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. Like most other drains, the one in Shitla Bazaar is also composed mostly of sewage and organic waste. But what marks it out are the hues of the effluents from the tanneries. “Sometimes the water turns red, sometimes green, depending on what dyes are being used to treat the animal hide,” says Savita, whose husband works at one of the tanneries.
Savita complains of repeated bouts of diarrhoea. Her nephew, a seven-month-old baby, who stays in the same house, is constantly sick. “I wish we had the means to move somewhere else. We have been pleading with the government to do something… people come here, take pictures and disappear,” she says.
The Shitla Bazaar drain is a catchment for several rivulets that can be seen snaking in and around the tannery cluster of Jajmau. At the periphery of one of the slums is an interceptor station — one of four — set up by the Jal Nigam, the Uttar Pradesh water authority. The station is a single room that serves as a power outlet for a network of pumps and treatment plants that filter out some of the solid waste such as remnants of animal skin, sludge and excreta. From here, the partially processed tannery sludge is sent for further treatment to a large Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) about 20 km away.
At the station, located a few feet from a mound of plastic bags and empty plastic Coke bottles, Akhilesh Pandey’s job is to coordinate a system of wheels and submersible pumps that filter and channel the waste. One of the sewerage pipes that is supposed to transport the effluent is broken. It extrudes a torrent of thick sludge which remains unprocessed and makes its way back into the drainage rivulets. “The trouble is that if we plug this pipe, then the filth will make its way into people’s homes and there will be a riot,” says Pandey, who has been employed by a private contractor to manage the drain. “There isn’t enough horse power in the motors to deal with the quantity of sewage being produced,” adds Pandey. Kanpur reportedly generates 450 MLD (million litres per day) of sewage but can only treat around 160-170 MLD.