Tanned Order

Authorities and the leather industry owners in Tamil Nadu dodge court orders, while a few individuals raise voices to save their ecosystems from tannery waste

By Binayak Das
Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Tanned Order

-- (Credit: Binayak Das / Cse)leather that weathers,' is a catchline of a well-known shoe brand. What is not mentioned is that it also decays and contaminates the soil and water. In the process of making leather products 'non-rotting' and tough, a huge volume of effluent is generated, and in most cases they are released into waterbodies and agricultural fields with or without treatment.

In 1996, the Supreme Court (sc) had ordered leather industries to take precautionary measures by installing common effluent treatment plants (cetps) or face closure. For the state of Tamil Nadu, sc has constituted a Loss of Ecology (Prevention and Payments of Compensation) Authority (lea) to assess the damage and estimate the compensation to be paid. Recently, the authority asked the tanneries to pay a compensation of Rs 26.82 crore to 29,193 people as pollution damages, but that is barely enough (see box: Polluter doesn't pay).

The leather industry is a major, though unorganised, small-scale sector in the country. Vellore district alone has about 6,000 tanneries. The river Palar that runs through the district has chocolate-coloured water. The water and soil quality in other districts that have tanneries are no different. In October 2000, one person was reported to have died and 16 others hospitalised when they consumed well water near Vaniambadi taluk. Tannery effluents had leached into the groundwater and contaminated it. "In 1984, I along with M R Ramanan, another lawyer, was requested by the North Arcot Committee for Legal Aid and Advice to ascertain the health damages and identify the tanneries responsible for it in Ambur town of the district. We found 300 tanneries responsible," says P S Subrahmanium, a Vellore-based lawyer and honorary secretary of the Vellore Citizen's Welfare Forum. But neither his report nor the order has changed the way tanneries operate in Ambur.

"Despite the sc order, the nexus between industries and government officials is yet to be broken," says A Gowtham Singhee, treasurer of the Vellore Citizen's Welfare Forum. Subrahmanium and Singhee have been spearheading the crusade against the tanneries since 1984, and were responsible for bringing about the sc order. Their demands include closure of all polluting tanneries in the Palar river basin and adequate compensation to the affected victims. In the Palar basin region, about 35,000-40,000 hectares of land has turned fallow and the groundwater has been polluted. People have started migrating in search of work. "The situation has become all the more precarious because of lack of surface water. Most of the requirement for irrigation, industry and drinking purposes are being met from groundwater sources," says M Thangarajan of National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.

P K Das, director of the Vector Control Research Centre in Pondicherry, also expresses concern, "The method of chrome tanning is very dangerous. Heavy metals can penetrate through skin and also cause prostrate cancer and kidney failures." The old notion that tannery waste is a good fertiliser is also unfounded, say experts. "Nitrogen bearing salt which is generally used in tanneries affect the nitrogen, phosphate and potassium (npk) ratio. It is a long term environmental threat," warns T Ramasami, director, Central Leather Research Institute (clri), Chennai.
Technology defamed After the order, there was a rush by factory owners to install cetps. But the plants are not up to the required standard. An Italian firm called Italprogetti in its 1996 report pointed out that cetp of talco Ranipet Tannery Effluent Treatment Company Limited, for instance, lacked many of the standard features necessary to control pollution. Says Vinni Kapur, managing partner of Tanmac India that deals with leather technologies, "Our tanneries are buying second-hand junk machines from abroad to save cost." Take the case of the drums that are used. Normal wooden drums cost Rs 5 lakh and lasts five to seven years, while an eco-friendly one costs Rs 25 lakh but lasts for 50 years. Yet, the leather industries continue to opt for the cheap one. "Why should we pollute when means and methods are there to recycle and restrict water usage?" questions Das. Cost-effective integrated approaches are available to avoid pollution through waste minimisation, sizing and selection of right technologies, says Ramasami.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (tnpcb) has recently come out with a myopic blueprint, which includes building long pipelines to dispose the treated effluents from 600 tanneries to the sea. This is in violation of the Coastal Zone Regulations Act. "Having polluted the land, they are moving towards the sea. This will give the tanneries freedom to discharge large volumes of untreated waste directly into the sea," says Das. Ironically, Sheila Rani Chunkat, chairperson of tnpcb , does not agree with the idea of disposing waste into the sea. "I am not in favour of the proposal. Instead, the effluent can be mixed with the sewage or stored in containers," she says. Various options have been suggested by the clri . "There is now an increasing recognition that end-of-pipe treatments in isolation are not enough," says J Raghava Rao of clri .

It is estimated that the leather industry made Rs 8,000 crore in 1999 by leather export. Surely, spending a little for the welfare of the people and the place should not hurt the industrial unit owners.

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