Kanpur’s Struggle Against Pollution

India has, for long, been celebrated as a land of spirituality. A utopian narrative would lay claims to India being a land of peace and prosperity. Paralleling this image, is another narrative of India as a newly industrialised country, with the 7th largest economy in the world in terms of nominal GDP. The cost at which this development is realized is, however, often conveniently ignored.

Various industries such as software, petroleum products, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, textiles, steel, transportation equipment, machinery, cement, mining, construction, and leather form the backbone of India’s economic development.

Out of these, leather forms a major chunk of India’s exports. Kanpur, a large industrial city on the banks of the Ganges River, situated in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, boasts of many such tanneries where hides and skins are processed at a massive scale, making Kanpur the heart of India’s leather industry.

However, much like most other industries, improper planning and dumping of untreated waste into water bodies gives rise to a plethora of concerns around suffocating levels of pollution.

The WHO Report: A call for action

The World Health Organization recently released a report ranking the most polluted cities on the planet. The report measured the amount of PM2.5 in the atmosphere, a particulate so small that it lingers in the atmosphere, enters the lungs, and causes many serious health problems. 14 Indian cities found a place among the world’s 15 most polluted cities in the world as per the World Health Organization’s recent report. In this list, Kanpur ranks as the most polluted city based on its PM2.5 levels from 2016.

Who’s to blame?

The high revenue generating leather tanneries of Kanpur generate high amounts of effluents rich in heavy metal Chromium, Arsenic, Cobalt, Cadmium, Lead and various others which are discharged into the Ganges untreated in most cases. This water also finds its way into the ground water and soil alike. Now the problems are not just associated with the untreated water but even the treated discharge from these tanneries which is used for the purpose of irrigation end up having a detrimental impact. Overall the water pollution, caused by these tanneries, has its own range of detriments to offer right from Blue Baby Syndrome to various dermal problems.

The government at work

The Uttar Pradesh Government and the National bodies like the National Green Tribunal are not oblivious of the situation. In 2016 The National Green Tribunal and the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board did lay down stringent environmental regulations and ordered for closure of 98 leather units under charges of polluting the Ganges.

In April 2017, the Uttar Pradesh Government conveyed to the National Green Tribunal as to how it was in the process of looking for new sites to relocate the tanning industries. Shutting down of these industries is certainly a difficult approach since they guarantee employment to a large population. Hence shifting them is supposedly the only applicable solution. However it has its own impediments to offer: one of them being paucity of land, shifting these industries by 100-150 km will still not take the tanneries outside the Ganga Basin. At the same time shifting of the Leather Tanning Industries will only resolve the problems posed by one set of industries; Central Pollution Control Board has referred to a number of other industries as well which have had a role to play in making Kanpur the world’s most polluted city.

At the same time, more pressing needs of the hour include improvements in the type of technology used for treating effluents and establishment of even new Common Effluent Treatment Plant in the Jajmau and Unnao industrial clusters. This is exactly the point where the industries blame the government to have been accountable for the pollution and claim that they alone aren’t responsible for the deterioration of the environment. This claim is not entirely wrong as the current capacity of most of the water treatment plants is way less than the required amount. But this cannot mean that the fault lies entirely with the government since, the plants established by the governments have to be provided with help from the industries as well, in terms of funding.

The way forward

Overall, synergistic efforts are needed in order to bring about a substantive change. Ultimately, the solutions to control pollution in Kanpur lie with certain infrastructural developments that need to be taken up by the government and the industries alike; only a collaborative effort on part of both the sides can bring out the desired results. However, it might be a long time before the blame-game is allowed to subside in order to pave way for reform. It is during this time that the people must mount pressure onto the government and industries for indifference is an unaffordable luxury when the riskiest thing to do is to simply breathe.


–Contributed by Richa Bhatt and Pragya Chamoli


Picture Credits: Patrika

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