...In Kanpur's Jajmau area, chromium enters food chain. How spent is the Ganga Action Plan?
Rs 67 crore later
On January 15, 2005, 23 leather tanneries in Kanpur's Jajmau area were 'temporarily' closed. They had failed to install chromium recovery plants. The closure was part of a Uttar Pradesh pollution control board's (uppcb) 'crusade' to prevent pollution of the city's water bodies. But a visit to Jajmau, which produces 12 per cent of the country's leather, reveals the step is a mere sham. Indeed, it is one more malady caused by the Union government's ambitious Ganga Action Plan (gap) . This programme was launched to clean up river Ganga; it has only increased pollution in 20 villages near Jajmau. The scale of mismanagement in gap is alarming; more dangerously, every new fact of unabated pollution is simply denied.
Despite gap, raw effluents rich in chromium used to colour leather, and other toxic pollutants, are freely dumped by many of Kanpur's 350 leather tanneries into river Ganga. gap's contribution to pollution is widely felt by the people:"Before the launch of gap, Kanpur Nagar Niagm supplied the villages river water mixed with sewage in the ratio 3:1 for irrigation; sewage is rich in nutrients and helps increase the yield. But this was stopped post- gap and the government started supplying treated effluent and sewage with very little river water mixed in it," complains B P Vishwakarma of Shekhpur village.
An indicator of the crisis is the common ailments suffered by people in villages near Jajmau: diarrhoea, worm infection, dysentery, cholera, skin diseases, tumours, mental retardation, spontaneous abortions, tuberculosis and leprosy. A few people also suffer from cancer. Studies conducted by the us Environmental Protection Agency indicate that chromium can be the cause of many of these, including cancer.
But officials view the matter differently. " bod has always remained within limits, both after and before gap. You cannot say that gap has failed: the population has increased drastically and so has the sewage load. The infrastructure created under gap was meant for lesser amount of sewage," argues R C Trivedi, additional director general, cpcb. K C Sahu, project manager, Ganga Pollution Control Unit, up Jal Nigam, claims: "We have utilised the available funds properly to ensure that not even a single drop of pollution enters the river."
These claims ring hollow. Lack of electricity has rendered dysfunctional the infrastructure set up under gap's first phase. Thus, despite four intermediate pumping stations along the Ganga (see map:Dead infrastructure) intercepting and diverting the waste to the main pumping station, over 60 per cent of Kanpur's 360 million litres per day (mld) sewage and 9 mld effluents are dumped into the river. Some tanneries have even bored holes in their premises, and dump the waste directly into the city's aquifers, Shekhpur villagers allege.
Also, the waste that reaches the treatment plants from the main pumping station is ill managed. "The plants rarely function due to power failure," says Padma S Vankar, senior project scientist, facility for ecological and analytical testing (feat), iit, Kanpur. Result: sewage and effluents rich in hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, is supplied for irrigation. Such occasional functioning also means the chromium-rich sludge is dumped carelessly. "The Common Effluent Treatment Plant (cetp) is not equipped to deal with chromium. It is not our problem," declares Ajay Kanaujia, chief chemist of the cetp, one of the three treatment plants in the city.
In fact, the latest closure of tanneries was triggered by a requirement of this cetp that chromium and other heavy metals be recovered and recycled at the tanneries. But the idea failed. "Why should we install chromium recovery plants when we have borne 17.5 per cent cost of the cetp?" questions Akhtar Hussain of Makhdoom Tanning Industries, Jajmau.
A study by the National Botanical Research Institute (nbri), Lucknow, detected high levels of chromium in the agricultural produce from the affected villages: samples of the edible part of sugarcane had chromium concentration of 14.10 microgrammes per gramme. Pumpkins, bottle guard, maize, rice and roses were also contaminated. Vankar says hexavalent chromium contamination in the soil of the area ranges from 50-350 milligrammes per kilogramme; it is 27-128 mg/l in groundwater.
Glue-making units that use the waste (flesh) and other by-products of tanneries on the outskirts of most villages have aggravated the trouble. "When the glue is made, it smells so bad that we feel like vomiting all the time," complains 12-year-old Kunti who lives in Pyondi village. Besides, the affected villages do not have primary health centres, as they are close to the city and fall in the jurisdiction of the Kanpur Nagar Nigam. But city health experts are unaware about the health impacts of the pollution the villages are steeped in. "I don't think sewage irrigation causes health problems. I have never heard of them," says S K Shrivastav, additional director, medical health and family welfare, Kanpur Mandal, Kanpur.
A survey conducted by Ecofriends, a local non-governmental organisation, in Shekhpur, Pyondi, Jaana and Motipur villages found that animals of these places are also suffering. In Jaana, 700 cattle produce only 100 calves a year. Residents also report a strange ailment in which cattle keep jerking their neck, lie down and then die.
According to a survey conducted by the department of humanities and social sciences and environmental engineering management programme, iit, Kanpur, the yield of wheat, paddy and barseem (a local animal feed plant) has reduced 50 per cent due to the use of contaminated irrigation water. Earlier floriculture, mainly rose farming, sustained the economy of these villages. "Now our roses stink. Their size is also very small. We've been deprived of our mainstay," rues Ram Dinesh of Pyondi village. The flower yield has dipped by 60 per cent. Vegetables grown in these villages can't be sold in the city even at very low rates.
The best way out is to stop using contaminated water for irrigation. The government should provide canal water instead. Vankar says another solution is to re-cycle hexavalent chromium to trivalent chromium . "The owners [of tanneries] should be made to realise that this will not only prevent pollution, but also save a lot of money by generating their raw material in their premises." Estimates say chromium worth Rs 1 crore is wasted every year.
"The biggest problem is of regulation. There is no way to stop the tanneries from polluting, because of corruption," points out S K Mishra, assistant environment engineer, uppcb , Kanpur. "Tragically, in Kanpur, politicians are also tannery owners...our anti-pollution drive is often of no use as there are many ways to circumvent laws if lawmakers themselves are involved in the process," he adds. Rakesh Jaiswal of Ecofriends suggests a revamp of both urban management and water management systems, considering them as a whole. gap and its implementation procedure should also be reconsidered, he feels. Vinod Tare, professor, environmental engineering and management, iit, K anpur, says gap's biggest drawback is its technical solutions.
Taking these suggestions seriously is imperative: gap's second phase has begun in Kanpur . Infrastructure is already being created. This time around, what kind of a wake-up call does the government need to ensure it doesn't waste scarce resources, as is the norm now?
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