Kanpur: Asif and his friends like to cast their nets here, where a black, serpentine ribbon flows from a sewer into the azure of the Ganga.
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The bilge forms dark clouds under the water before slowly disappearing into the expanse of blue, killing all the fish in the vicinity. “I just throw a net and catch so many of them,” says Asif, 10, gleefully widening his hands to show the size of his catch. “They are all dead here, so it is easy to catch them.”
He turns over his haul to the boat-owner, who sells it in the markets to residents, who cook biryanis and curries with it.
Kanpur, says resident Ashok Mishra, “is drowning in its own filth”. And choking the Ganga, considered holy by the Hindus, with human waste, sewage and effluents from the city’s leather tanneries.
Last week, protesters thronged the city for the launch of the Ganga Raksha Andolan, or Save Ganga Campaign, and cheered when yoga guru Baba Ramdev looked into television cameras and warned: “Start cleaning up your waste. You can take this as a warning. We will not spare anyone who pollutes the Ganga any more.”
Thorny issue: Daily wagers sort through horns, tails and hooves of dead animals at a tannery in Kanpur. City authorities say the tanning industry refuses to follow government rules on treatment of sewage. Priyanka Narayan / Mint
The warning was to the tanneries, as well as to the authorities of Kanpur, from where at least 250 million litres of waste water runs straight into the Ganga daily, without being treated. On days with power cuts, when treatment plants do not work, the number hovers closer to 300 million litres.
Of this, about 20-30 million litres is bilge from the tanneries, containing animal remains and arsenic, cadmium, mercury and chrome—noxious chemicals that kill the fish and give life to weeds that choke the river.
The city in Uttar Pradesh is home to 400-odd tanneries that employ about 25,000 residents to clean animal hides and produce leather. The industry generates an estimated Rs2,000 crore of sales a year; it is also giving Kanpur a reputation as the worst polluter of the Ganga.
“The industry not only generates dangerous sewage, but also refuses to follow government rules of sewage treatment. They prefer to dump it into the Ganga,” says district magistrate Anil Kumar Sagar, who has been trying to enforce sewage treatment rules in the city’s tanneries.
At the office of the Ganga Pollution Control Unit, general manager D.P. Singh says the city desperately needs attention. It has a century-old sewage network that caters to only 40% of its three million residents.
Existing sewage lines are choked, treatment plants do not have the capacity to process all the waste the city generates. Frequent power cuts render the plants idle.
Government data from 2006 shows that biochemical oxygen demand levels are 6.2 milligrams (mg) per litre in Kanpur. “As pollution rises, this number also increases. The maximum acceptable value of this is only 3mg per litre,” says Rakesh Jaiswal, founder of Ecofriends, a not-for-profit organization that focuses on the issue of Ganga pollution.
The 36 million litres a day sewage treatment plant in Jajmau, near Kanpur, was constructed exclusively to deal with tannery sewage, but it does not always work.
“During monsoons, the sludge does not dry and is left on the banks of the Ganga. Now, it is sinking into our soil, our lands and our water,” said Sunil Nishad, a farmer in the Shekhpur village, only a few kilometres downstream from this treatment plant.
Most farmers in his village began to use hand pumps to irrigate their fields after the plant came into operation. “Our water was polluted with chromium, so we needed pumps to draw water from the underground table at 150 feet. We are not allowed to go deeper than that,” Nishad said.
Now, even that water table has been contaminated with chromium. “But the authorities are not allowing us to dig deeper for water. How will we grow our crops with chromium water? What will we drink?” he demanded.
Even the drinking water supplied to the city itself may not be safe. Close to the city’s ‘intake point’—or place where water is sucked in from the river to supply drinking water to residents—are slaughterhouses, burning ghats where the dead are cremated, and sewage lines.
“The machinery that sucks in the water is just 1km upstream of this Bhairav ghat where we burn the bodies. Next to us is the slaughterhouse that dumps animal remains and blood into the water. I don’t know what all is the machine sucking in with the water,” said Manoj, who gave only his first name and cremates the dead for a living.
In Shekhpur and 13 other villages, people are feeling the effects.
Three months ago, Chotelal Nishad, 52, began to feel a burning sensation under his skin, which has developed inexplicable lesions. “Then the pain came. I went to doctors who said I have boils in my stomach and intestines. They say it is some kind of water infection.” Since then, he spends his days visiting doctors. His family is also sick. “Their stomach is always churning and hurting,” he says.
He is not the only one struggling. Tales of illness, failing crops and financial troubles have touched all homes in this village of 1,500 that has seen 25 deaths this month.
“We have stopped grieving,” said Ritu Nishad, 18, who lost his father, uncle and aunt this month. “No one cares. There is no hope.”
Chromium poisoning in villages near the treatment plant is not a new problem. Nine years ago, Ecofriends raised the issue of these villages with the authorities.
“We told them that the ground water is contaminated and sewage water is irrigating farmlands of 14 villages around the city,” said Jaiswal. So the government allocated Rs1.64 crore to build two tube wells that would tap clean water 1,400 feet under the ground and supply it to farms and people’s homes.
The tube wells were built two years ago, but the water is still missing because they are not in operation.
Twenty-five thousand people in nine villages—Shekhpur, Wajidpur, Paibandi, Jana, Sukhipur, Trilokpur, Haniya, Kajuriwa and Khalar—still drink chromium-laced water and irrigate their fields with water containing untreated sewage from the tanneries.
But tanneries are not wholly responsible for the current situation, says Singh.
“Even if they want to dispose sewage properly, they cannot because pipes leading from many tanneries to the treatment plant are choked. We, in the government, are the real culprits. I am not afraid to admit that we have not provided for the city’s infrastructure needs,” he said, showing photos of pipes choked with silt and debris.
The authorities—including the district magistrate and general manager of the Ganga Pollution Control Unit—privately say they are pleased with the Save Ganga Campaign because it will bring much-needed attention to the problems of the Ganga.
Curious, because they are the ones who need to be paying attention.