Death by another name in backwaters of UP

The blatant manner in which the powerful leather industry in Unnao has been polluting the water sources in the name of development is violation of human rights


R Swaminathan | March 29, 2013

Rani Devi
Rani Devi

When Ram Kishan nonchalantly shows his deeply calloused hands his empty eyes reveal nothing. There is no longing there. No anger. No hate. No sadness. No hope. There is not even a fleeting glimpse of a moist flicker. There are just two haunting, bottomless pits. Silently he reaches out to his eight-year-old son Dinesh Ram, flicks him around and displays his thick scaly skin. It may sound inhuman, but hide is a better word. Without missing a beat, he leaps across his charpai and bares the putrid teeth of his emaciated cow. Water gives life. Pollute water and it snatches life right back. Slowly and painfully. One organ, one bone at a time. It’s a real pity then that it usually takes away the lives of those who had no role in sullying it. Ram Kishan and the people of Maswasi village in Unnao district in Uttar Pradesh are one dying example. There are countless others too.

Read the story in PDF version: attached below.

Every day he expects the bones of his loved ones to become more brittle. Just as we expect our work to be, at least figuratively, bone-crushing. Every day Kishan knows he has to take part in a losing battle. Mind you, he does not fight it. He only takes part in it because he has no other choice. He has to drink the polluted water to quench his thirst, grow his crops and cook his food. He doesn’t cringe, cry or befall his fate. We do.
Barely half a kilometre from Kishan’s house is one of the larger units of Mirza Tanners. Massive fort-like walls with layers of crushed glass on top and razor-edged barbwires surround the complex in a protective envelope. Behind the forbidding iron gates lies a different world. In the world of Maswasi, where the daily wage of a farmer on a good day is Rs 200 and prosperity is measured in terms of a rare motorbike or a rarer tractor, a gleaming canary yellow Lamborghini and a shiny black Mercedes S Class Coupe appear farcical. Yet they are there, standing proudly behind the gates. A boy’s ultimate toys. Whispers reveal they belong to the owner’s son.

The tannery is large and has a capacity to process almost 1,000 hides a day. On the face of it, things seem to be in place. The cleaning area, salting area and washing area for hides are all clearly demarcated and cordoned off. There is an effluent treatment plant (ETP), exactly as mandated by the environmental protection acts and norms. The work floor of the tannery is automated and the workers wear gumboots. There are no gloves or hardhats though. In retrospect though, that indiscretion seems minor. The ETP is never run to its full capacity. The bore wells pump out more unmetered water than metered to wash the extra hides that are sneaked in during the night. Most of the effluents are bored back into the ground and the remaining is surreptitiously released through illegal drainage pipes into the nearby water stream. It’s the same stream that Kishan is forced to use for his daily needs. And yes, the UP government should get a special mention for designating the polluted sludge as a minor irrigation canal and charging a cess for it.

Killing a Town Softly
Sandwiched between Lucknow and Kanpur, Unnao is a large district. It’s one of the biggest parliamentary constituencies of the country with six assembly segments. It’s best known for its mangoes from Safipur and Mianganj. But hiding behind its relative agricultural prosperity is a truth that is getting bitter every passing day. Unnao is home to around 60 large slaughter houses and tanneries. There are also over 150 legal and illegal smaller units that thrive on practically anything from bones to animal fat. Lost in the glare of the spotlight on Kanpur’s over 400-odd units, majority of which directly pollute the Ganga, Unnao’s problem doesn’t even register. After all Kanpur’s tanneries and slaughter houses have been dumping their treated and untreated effluents into the Ganga before Indian independence. The sheer scale of pollution in Kanpur is actually Unnao’s millstone.
The leather industry in Unnao is of a relatively recent vintage compared to Kanpur. Most large tanneries and slaughter houses have come up in the last 40-odd years. The older cluster of units is concentrated in the areas of Dahi Chowki and the newer ones at Banthar, where a leather park has been set up by the UP State Industrial Corporation (UPSIDC). Of course, there are large standalone units, like Mirza Tanners, that are located in the interior areas of Unnao. The tanning units and slaughter houses were set up during an age when the paradigm of development exclusively meant factories and jobs. They were positioned as the path to rapidly industrialise Unnao and to skip a couple of steps ahead in the development curve. Most of these units, as they are today, were owned by people who were in the leather tanning sector for decades in Kanpur. The relative anonymity of Unnao coupled with the nudge-and-wink nexus of the owners with politicians and bureaucrats ensured that environmental norms and requirements were progressively diluted and ignored. Unnao is no different from the rest of India. Travelling from Lucknow, an unbearable smell is the first indication that Unnao is nearby. Locals sheepishly mention it, but except for a few indistinct and isolated rumbles of protest no one really bothers as it has become an integral part of collective consciousness and a way of life. After living with the stench for close to 40 years, practically a lifetime, it has to be.

Recent years have seen an increasingly brazen discharge of untreated effluents and dumping of solid waste by tanneries, slaughter houses and leather processing units and the deliberate ineffectiveness of the state pollution control board and its local officials in Unnao who, if the local grapevine is to be believed, are in the “pockets of owners”. The rising disquiet, which has been building over the last few years, reached a tipping point due to the discovery that years of illegal reverse boring by unscrupulous units have started contaminating the town area’s water supply. It seems to have shaken Unnao out of its stupor.

Power, Pollution and Politicians
Unnao is a reflection of this Indian reality, though on a smaller scale. Microcosms have an inherent advantage. Since the landscape of activity is finite, not only are the funders and their benefactors more clearly identifiable, their relationship and the apparent benefits to each are also transparently visible. In Unnao, the financial lubrication needed for politics and politicians has primarily come from the owners of tanneries, slaughter houses and processing units. Traditionally, every single political party and politician has benefitted from the immensely lucrative leather industry in UP, which is worth over Rs 40,000 crore and growing. Unnao was no exception.

The leather industry in Unnao supplies shoes, wallets, belts, designer jackets, overcoats and even leather pants to global brands like Gucci, Armani and Prada. In fact, the tight-fitting leather pants that brought Kim Kardashian’s ample derriere into sharp focus a couple of years back was made by the Superhouse Group here. Unnao also supplies different types of raw leather to retail brands in India and abroad. So lucrative is the industry, that all the major leather groups of Unnao have entered retail branding themselves. Red Tape, Red Chief and Mochi are some of the well-known brands available in all metropolitan centres. The leather industry prospered under the benign gaze of politicians and officialdom. Nothing wrong with it, except that the benign gaze allowed prosperity to be built on an in-your-face flouting of environmental norms and regulations and a steady poisoning of Unnao’s groundwater resources and drinking water supply.

In 2009, however, the script turned turtle. It was a change of cataclysmic proportions for a smug leather industry. A rank outsider, a woman with no ties to the leather mafia, Annu Tandon, romped home to victory in the Lok Sabha elections with a huge margin of over 3,00,000 votes. Only Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi posted better margins. For the first time in close to four decades Unnao had someone at its helm who was not beholden in any manner to the tannery owners.

Used to dealing with pliant officials and politicians, the smug leather industry did just that. Tandon’s initial attacks on the industry through the local press were ‘ignored’ with an underlying assumption that it could be ‘managed’. Management is a term prone to several interpretations. In this case, it meant that like all politicians Tandon’s attacks were just an attempt at positioning for a ‘deal’ with the leather industry.

The leather industry badly miscalculated. In late 2009 a delegation of tannery and slaughter house owners and the chief executive officer (CEO) of the industry-established Industrial Infrastructure Services (India) Limited, which manages and runs the common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) located at Dahi Chowki and Banthar Leather Park, met Tandon at her ancestral house in Unnao. The meeting had been preceded by a series of feelers to Tandon requesting for a ‘compromise’.

After around ten minutes of beating around the bush, Tandon asked the delegation a direct question. “Why is there a discrepancy between the installed treatment capacity of the CETPs and the amount of effluents discharged by the industry?” The faces said it all. It was a technical question, one that the delegation never expected a politician to ask. The underlying implication of the question was clear. The delegation was contending that there was no illegal discharge of untreated effluents. That single question unravelled the lie.

In the next six months, Tandon approached every single institution from the UP pollution control board (UPPCB), union environment ministry, commerce ministry, water resources ministry, central pollution control board (CPCB), the prime minister and the Congress president on irregularities being committed by the tanneries, slaughter houses and processing units. These were not ordinary representations and letters. They were singularly specific to the extent that they included photographs and videos of illegal release of effluents and dumping of solid waste in various locations.

The nature of the centre-state relationship is such that the jurisdiction of central institutions, in what is essentially defined as a state subject under the constitution, is limited to issuing instructions that are expected to be followed by their counterparts in the state. The environmental regulation of industrial activity in states is primarily done under the omnibus Environmental Protection Act, which has been amended over 10 times till now to make it stronger. There are other acts like the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Rules, National Environmental Tribunal Act and Municipal Solid Waste Rules. All of these add more bite and teeth to the Environmental Protection Act.

The numerous representations and letters sent to the union government and the prime minister found their mark. The environment ministry asked the central pollution control board (CPCB) to find out the ground situation.

This is where the peculiarities of the centre-state relationship came in. The CPCB could only direct the UPCCB to investigate the matter. The state body would then ask its regional officer in-charge of Unnao to study and report on the matter. The reports, not surprisingly, downplayed the entire gamut of pollution with some going to the extent of claiming that the concentration of heavy metals in the effluents discharged by the tanneries and slaughter houses were within permissible limits set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and World Health Organisation (WHO). The entire issue was approaching a stalemate.

The Tale of Three Reports
That’s when Tandon invited a team of environmental scientists from the reputed Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), Lucknow, to test the groundwater sources and the water supply in and around the Dahi Chowki cluster of leather tanneries and slaughter houses and the Banthar Leather Park. The IITR team collected water samples from 18 sources and found 13 of them to be highly contaminated. The contamination ranged from excessive amounts of total dissolved solids (TDS), elevated levels of sulphate and trivalent chromium, popularly referred to as chromium 3, and an alarming presence of hexavalent chromium, better known as chromium 6. The presence of trivalent chromium is usually attributed to the natural reactions occurring in the soil. If chromium 3 is Dr Jekyll of the periodic table, chromium 6 is its Hyde. It is acutely carcinogenic and prolonged exposure to chromium 6 leads to genetic mutations, stunted growth and physical abnormalities. Exactly what Kishan and his fellow villagers in Maswasi are facing. Hexavalent chromium can be generated only through human activity, or what the scientists refer to as anthropogenic factors. The primary salt used in the tanning process, by the way, is chromium. The IITR team also found in the samples copper, cadmium, zinc, lead, iron, manganese and nickel above the limits prescribed by the BIS. All these heavy metals are used in the processing of raw hides. The contention of the leather industry that effluents were treated and chromium completely extracted was proven to be false. (The full IITR report attached below).

This report propelled the fight to a different dimension. Using the report as the base, several local lawyers filed right to information (RTI) applications asking for information on the steps taken by the UPCCB, including the number of random checks and tests undertaken, to tackle the pollution caused by the leather industry. With great reluctance, the UPCCB admitted that they hadn’t done any testing due to “lack of laboratory facilities and testing equipment”. In short, the UPCCB was forced to admit that all its annual clean chits to the various tannery units, slaughter houses and both the CETPs were based on, for the lack of a better word, absolute thin air.

The letters and representations to the environment ministry, commerce ministry, the PM and the UP government became relentless. Faced with mounting evidence, the water resources ministry asked the central ground water board (CGWB) to conduct an independent investigation and report directly to the union government.  Not wanting to take chances, the CGWB put two of its most senior environmental scientists on the job. They collected 45 samples from all across Unnao. Over 30 samples were found to be polluted with heavy metals. Just like the IITR report, the effluent samples collected from the leather tanning industries and from the CETPs recorded high levels of copper, chromium, lead, iron, manganese and nickel. In fact, the report found that chromium was above permissible limits in the so-called treated water released by both the CETPs at Dahi Chowki and Banthar Leather Park (The full report attached below).

With this report, the pressure on the UPCCB increased exponentially. An undercover team of environmental scientists and civil society activists from Unnao was formed by the board to “further investigate” the matter. The team was supposed to go “unannounced” to the tanneries, slaughter houses and processing units for investigation. But in UP, no piece of information can remain confidential for long if the labyrinthine maze of the bureaucracy is well greased. Several tanneries and slaughter houses wizened up, albeit temporarily, for the team’s visit. A few big ones seemingly decided to brazen it out. That’s the only explanation why JS International, one of India’s largest slaughter houses that exports processed meat to several countries, including the stringent markets of the European Union, was caught discharging untreated effluents into an open drain.
After the team’s visit, four perfunctory notices were issued. Three of them were issued to small tanning units that were anyway on their last legs due to the constant squeeze by the bigger factories. The fourth notice was issued to JS International, curiously asking it to explain their waste disposal methods. Not surprisingly, none of the notices invoked the stricter provisions of the environmental protection laws, which provide for measures like issuance of a show-cause notice to outright shutting down of polluting units. The top brass of the UPCCB highlighted its act of constituting an undercover team as proof of its commitment. The regional office of the board in Unnao pointed to the notices as evidence of their good intentions. The leather industry brought out full-page advertisements in newspapers extolling their “advanced technologies and zero pollution”. Nothing changed and things chugged along as usual, without even a ripple of conscience.

Yet, precious ground gained through the gritty battle waged by the civil society of Unnao was lost due to the publicity blitz of the leather industry. The lost ground had to be regained. Tandon and her team upped the pressure on the environment ministry again. Once again, the water resources ministry directed the CGWB to conduct another investigation. Chastened by the UPCCB fiasco, the CGWB team of scientists was personally supervised and led by regional director KB Biswas. It was decided to widen the scope of the testing to eliminate all doubts. A record 69 samples were collected from ground water, surface water and effluent sources. These samples were analysed for the estimation of total chromium, hexavalent chromium, pH conductivity and fluoride. The results were an absolute shocker. The effluent samples near CETP at Dahi Chowki recorded a total chromium of 3,984 micrograms/litre. The drain connected to the Mirza tannery at Maswasi, where Ram Kishan and his fellow villagers are dying slowly, recorded 4,455 micrograms/litre. The WHO and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recommended limit for chromium is 0.01mg/l. The BIS calls for a desirable limit of 1.0 mg/l. This means that chromium quantity at Dahi Chowki and Mirza tannery was over 3,900 and 4,400 percent respectively of the recommended levels. It’s a mindboggling number. The report unearthed more skeletons. In ground water samples the amount of hexavalent chromium at six locations was over 50 times, in other samples up to 600 times the recommended levels. The report said, “The presence of chromium in surface as well as in ground water indicates that surface water has started polluting the ground water.” (The full report attached below.)

A Minister’s Face-off, a Padma Shri and People’s Power
Biswas was scathing in his report. In a letter addressed to the water resources and environment ministries, a copy of which was marked to then environment minister Jairam Ramesh and his senior colleagues, Biswas wrote: “If prompt and immediate steps are not taken in Unnao to stop the pollution, it will be difficult to retrieve the situation. Unnao will go the way of Kanpur.” It seems that Ramesh took that letter seriously and within a month decided to visit Unnao. The ostensible reason was to inaugurate in Kanpur a machine developed and patented by the CPCB for curing leather using the process of lyophilisation. Lyophilisation enables salt-free preservation of hides. The process also uses lesser amount of water and brings down the quantity of chromium required.

On his way back to Lucknow, Ramesh decided to stop by Unnao and spring a surprise on a couple of the big units in the Banthar Leather Park. He went to these units unannounced. Quite obviously, all the owners were taken by surprise and fell head over heels in the welcoming the minister. When the minister politely asked the owners to “clean up their act” by investing in newer and cleaner technologies like lyophilisation, they refused point-blank. A senior official who was accompanying Ramesh later said in private, “The minister was shocked. In his entire tenure, no one had refused anything in such an outright manner to the minister. It was brazen.”

Local civil society activists, who have been fighting the leather industry for years, are not surprised. They contended that the leather industry is like the rich, spoilt brat of a big daddy who’s had every whim and fancy, justified or otherwise, taken care of by means not always legitimate. “How else can one explain the Padma Shri given to Irshad Mirza, the owner of Mirza group of companies that is so blatantly polluting our streams and groundwater sources?” asked an activist.

The fact that the leather industry has managed not just to get away, but prosper, is a sign of the times. It also indicates how governance and the institutions that are supposed to protect and nurture it have become mere paper tigers, issuing toothless notices and covering up their incompetent tracks. In that sense, Unnao reflects the deeper rot that has set into the Indian psyche, which triumphantly celebrates jugaad without a care or concern for how such an attitude ultimately makes life a living hell for people like Ram Kishan.

Everything is not lost yet in Unnao. The sliver of hope comes from the people themselves. In the last few months, cutting across party lines, caste boundaries and religious divisions, people have started coming under the banner of Unnao Bachao Andolan (Save Unnao Campaign) to take on the leather industry head on. (Please refer to for full details) Even though the driving force behind this movement is Tandon, it is apolitical. The posters, handbills, stickers and badges do not have any party logo, nor are there any party colours. “If people are not alive and are slowly dying every day, where is the space for politics?” asked Tandon. “We cannot let Unnao turn into a cesspool of harmful chemicals and diseases. Politics requires people to be alive first.” It’s a powerful logic that seems to be seeping rapidly into the psyche of Unnao. It also gives hope that sustainable development and environment will finally break the shackles of seminar rooms and conference tables and become a real issue of social change and political power. The only fear is that by the time the paradigm shift takes place, it might be too late for Ram Kishen.

Disclosure: Swaminathan assists Annu Tandon in her social projects.

This story first appeared in March 2013



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