KANPUR, the legendary Cawnpore of the British Raj, has
been re-christened time and again in it's 300 years of existence. Better known as the "Industrial Graveyard" and the "Capital of Tuberculosis" in recent years, the World Health Organisation has added another
feather in its cap by declaring it one of the
10 most polluted cities in the world. The
authorities and the three million-strong
public remain unfazed. The notable
exception is Rakesh Jaiswal, the founder
of Eco Friends, and the increasing ranks
of his followers who are pressing for
direct action from the authorities to tackle
Kanpur's environmental problems.
The history of Kanpur's fall from grace
lies in its wayward growth as an industrial town. Unfortunately, religious
practices have compounded the problem. The Ganga flows through Kanpur.
Venerated for 2,000 years as the holy mother of all rivers, its waters are highly polluted today and a dip in the Ganga
could result in a host of near-fatal illnesses. Human and animal carcasses
can be seen floating in the waters. About
350 million litres of untreated sewage find their way into the river daily. There is hardly any marine flora and fauna left. And the survival of the Gangetic dolphin is threatened.
There is a reason why human bodies are found floating in the river. Water burial is practiced by a few communities. Also, for the poor, it is an easy way out as they lack money for a proper cremation.
But it is amazing that Rama Shankar Pal,
a minister in the state cabinet, followed
this practice when his mother died, says
Jaiswal. Unclaimed bodies lying in police
stations and hospitals are also thrown
into the Ganga, says Jaiswal. Besides,
there are 300-odd tanneries that keep
discharging effluents, including carcinogenic chromium, into the river. And
people living along the river banks continue to use the river water for various
purposes, including drinking. Intestinal
and skin ailments are rampant.
"One day, I opened the tap for drinking water and all I got was black
foul-smelling liquid," says Jaiswal. Investigations revealed that the raw
water intake point for Kanpur at Bhairav Ghat received untreated sewage
through five drains, including one from a tuberculosis hospital.
This was the last straw. Jaiswal decided to
do something about it. He floated Eco
Friends and started spreading awareness
among the youth and mobilising a student force. The response he got was over-
whelming. People from A walks of life joined the campaigns. Rallies, workshops
and yatras were organised to keep up the pace. The "Save Ganga Cycle Rally" on
March 25, 1995, was led by noted environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna.
In the 1995 Ardha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Eco Friends tried to explain
the problem to religious leaders and devotees. Some religious leaders did talk
to the devotees. But the response of some was quite the opposite. "Keep
throwing bodies or waste, the Ganga will purify it they told us," recalls Jaiswal.
In June 1997, Jaiswal took the help of
his friends and the Dom community (whose members handle the work at the cremation grounds), to retrieve 180 bodies which were later given a proper
burial. "Our efforts did have some impact on the masses, but failed to evoke
any government interest," says Jaiswal.
Soon thereafter, he decided to extend his campaign to tackle other
problems ailing the city. "The issues demanded immediate attention and the
authorities lacked the spirit and determination to bring about the necessary
change," says Jaiswal. In July, 1997, Jaiswal filed a writ petition in the
Allahabad high court. This Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was not only
confined to Kanpur, but to issues ailing in the entire state.
In May 1998, the court ordered the closure of industries without primary
effluent treatment plants (PETPS) - 117 tanneries in Kanpur; 40 saree printing
units in Varanasi; and 10 carpet dyeing units in Mirzapur. Among other things,
it ordered the formation of the River Police in 22 towns and provision of
uninterrupted power supply to all the ETPS that were created under the Ganga
Action Plan (GAP)-Phase 1.
The court also asked the up Pollution Control Board to monitor the
river quality every month from the users' point and not from the centre of
the river. A high-level committee was formed to monitor the compliance of
the various court orders. The committee submitted its first report on July 9, 1998.
For Jaiswal, his five-year struggle is finally bearing fruit. "The court orders
have been of immense help," he says. Earlier, one could spot a minimum of
100 bodies in the five to six kilometre stretch of Ganga in Kanpur, now the
number has gone down to around 10. The polluting industries have been
closed. Five drains that used to reach the raw water intake point have been diverted and there is a reduction in the effluents discharged. According to D B
S Gupta, general manager, Kanpur'Jal Nigam, 70 per cent of the pollution load
has come down.
"But the success and sustainability of the GAP-1 projects are very much
questionable," says Jaiswal. "Some of the projects were non-starters - for
instance, setting up three electric crematoriums, two are non-functional and the
other has no acceptability because of the high cost." Power cuts have also rendered the PETP plants useless.
"Pollution in Kanpur has reduced and we aim to wipe it off completely,"
he says. "Creating big institutions does not matter much. What matters is if you
can make yourself an institution", says Simronjeet Singh, a researcher in
human ecology who works with Jaiswal.
And Jaiswal is doing just that.