Kanpur: Sixty-year-old Naiyer Jamal visits his tannery in Jajmau every day. He inherited it from his father in 1981. Jamal has a cabinet full of books on the history of the leather industry in Kanpur which he browses from time to time. At other times, friends and other tannery owners from Jajmau drop in for a cup of tea. All of them have been out of work for the past three months.
Late last year, the Uttar Pradesh government ordered the closure of over 300 tanneries for three months, from December 15-March 15, due to the Kumbh Mela, ostensibly to keep river Ganga clean. According to the tannery owners The Wire spoke to, tanneries in Kanpur and Banthar were ordered to completely shut down, while those in Unnao were allowed to work on a partial capacity.
“Under earlier governments, the tannery owners used to voluntarily stop work for three days prior to each nahaan (holy dip) of the Kumbh, because the water takes three days’ time to reach Allahabad from here, despite the fact that it is treated water,” said Taj Alam, president of the UP Leather Industries Association. “But hundreds of towns on the banks of river Ganga release untreated sewage into the river even during the Kumbh.”
This year, however, the government order has left the tanneries deserted, and sealed machinery bears witness to the decline of a once-thriving business. Vast piles of raw skin kept in Jamal’s tannery have begun to rot. “Ab to aisa hai ki ye ek kabristan hai or kabristan me murde lete hain (It’s like a graveyard where corpses are lying)”, said Jamal.
Three-month closure, permanent losses
Jamal, a former general secretary of the Small Tanners’ Association, says the tanneries began to be shut down in November. He has since incurred a loss of about Rs 15 lakh. “Our credibility and position have taken a major hit. We have lost a lot of our loyal customers. A lot of our overseas customers have now turned towards other countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Brazil. It will take us a lot of time to recover from this period,” Jamal said. “While losses of small tannery owners like myself are in lakhs, the big tanneries may have lost crores by now.”
On the estimated loss to the leather industry in the past three months, Javed Iqbal said, “We don’t have the exact figures yet. We will only get them by the first week of April.” Iqbal is the regional chairman of the Council for Leather Exports that comes under the ministry of commerce and industry.
Kanpur became a hub of tanning and producing leather goods in the colonial period as demand for boots, saddles and other goods for the British cavalry grew. More recently, growing international demand for leather goods boosted the industry, and more tanneries opened. There are close to 27 tanneries in Banthar, 17 in Unnao and over 400 tanneries in Kanpur, of which 256 are operational. Most of the animal hide comes from buffaloes.
Just tanneries being targeted?
Tanneries are considered heavily polluting industries, as they release chemical effluents into water that flows into the Ganga. But a study by the Centre for Science and Environment in 2013 found that tanneries in Uttar Pradesh contribute just 8% of the wastewater, but this is highly toxic and concentrated in the Kanpur belt, while industries like sugar, pulp and paper and distillery plants add up to 70% of the wastewater.
“According to the Central Pollution Control Board, tanneries are not the only industry to be classified under Grossly Polluting Industries. Then why are only we being targeted?” asked Alam.
“All this has a political angle to it,” said Ashraf Rizwan, owner of a big tannery in Jajmau and the director of Jajmau Tannery Effluent Treatment Association, hinting that the establishments are being targeted as most are Muslim owned.
Jamal simply blames it on red tape. He adds, however, that apart from most owners being Muslims, a majority of the labourers in these tanneries are Dalits and people belonging to other scheduled castes. Asked if that could be a reason for the industry being “targeted”, he did not respond.
‘It looks like there’s a curfew here’
Large tanneries employ between a hundred and 300 workers, all on the payroll. Small tanneries like Shareef’s and Jamal’s depend on a handful of permanent employees, and daily wage labourers who earn Rs 500-600 a day to run the machines.
Since the closure, thousands of daily-wage workers have returned to their villages. “So many people have lost their livelihood. They were left with nothing,” said Shabbir Ahmed, 65, who works as an office boy at the Jajmau Tanners’ Association office. “Many have returned home while others are still struggling to put food on their plate. The order has almost finished this industry. This used to be such a busy road. Now it looks like there’s a curfew here.”
Other employment that flourished due to the proximity of tanneries has also been hit. Ram Rani, a single mother in her forties, ran her household by selling tea on the Jajmau road. “I used to earn around Rs 1,000 every day because all the labourers used to come here to have tea,” she said, as her teenage son sat behind her listlessly at the wooden table which was her shop. “Now, it’s difficult to earn even Rs 200. I keep sitting and waiting for customers.”
Fifty-year-old Fayyaz Ahmed also finds himself with no work on most days. He used to deliver buffalo hide on a horse cart for a living. “I have hardly been getting any work for the past three months. Only I know how I am managing,” Ahmed told The Wire.
Irfan, 27, who goes just by his first name, is a leather scrap dealer. He buys waste leather material from tanneries to sell to leather-product factories. “For three months, I have been making the rounds here in the hope that the work will resume. Sometimes, I don’t even have the money to put fuel in my bike. I have not even been able to pay my electricity bill or school fees of my children.”
Better solutions than shutdowns
Since the closure hit the supply chain in Kanpur’s leather business, many reports have indicated that tannery owners are considering moving to West Bengal, where the state government provides support and land to set up their tanneries.
“It’s not an easy thing to move a whole tannery to another state and start afresh, but if things don’t get easier for us, we will have to move too,” said Shareef. He is also worried about his machinery. “The machines we use to process raw skin from the slaughterhouses are round wooden drum-barrels, which need constant movement and water for proper functioning. The three-month shutdown has affected the machines too. Apart from the losses that we are already suffering, we will have to put in a lot of money to get them repaired.”
According to Alam, the leather industry does a business of over Rs 4,000 crore a month, including international exports. “This industry is also included in the prime minister’s ‘Make in India’ scheme. Then why are we being stigmatised? Why are we not getting the same benefits as the other industries included in the scheme?”
The leather industry has faced trouble since 1985, when M.C. Mehta, an environmental activist, filed a public interest litigation about the release of untreated effluents into the river Ganga. The tanneries were then mandated to install a primary treatment plant. After primary treatment, the water goes to a common effluent treatment plant (CETP) before the water is released into the drains from where it enters the river and irrigation channels.
According to Jamal, tannery owners contributed 17.5% to the cost of developing the CETP. Every tannery owner still pays a monthly maintenance fee.
“We (tannery owners) have proposed a project in which the water released from the CETP will not go into the river at all. It will all be diverted to irrigation channels where the farmers can choose to use it. We have already started work on it. This is a solution which can save the tannery industry now,” Rizwan told The Wire.
While the shutdown may end next week, the troubles of the tannery owners are far from over. Most of the workforce has left, and it will take time for the owners to find labour. With the Central government pushing hard on the ‘Namami Ganga’ project, tannery owners can expect to remain the first in the line of fire.
The next generation, according to Shareef and Jamal, does not want to take over the tanning business. “My children say this work is complicated and full of trouble as we are always stressing over orders given by some or the other department, whether it is the Central Pollution Control Board, UP Pollution Control Board, National Green Tribunal or the Jal Nigam,” said Jamaal.
There is no scope even to protest. “We face so many problems even when we are trying to cooperate,” Shareef told The Wire. “If we raise our voice against the treatment we are getting, who knows what will happen.”
Questions were sent to the UP Jal Nigam and UP Pollution Control Board but till the time of the publication, no responses were received.
Manira Chaudhary is an independent multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. She tweets at @ManiraChaudhary