Kolkata tanners unhappy with new relocation site

By Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Saturday 15 September 2007

There is much that Kolkata lea (Credit: CSE PHOTO LIBRARY)Until a decade ago, Kim Li Loi, Canton and Hot Wok, restaurants in the Chinatown locality of eastern Kolkata's Tangra district, collectively served as a tannery among scores of others run by Chinese immigrants. But a December 19, 1996, Supreme Court order directed these and other inner city tanners from Tiljala, Topsia and Pagla Danga districts to shut shop and relocate to the Bantala Leather Complex, 15 km away from Kolkata.

"As of July 2007, 433 of the 550 tanners have been allocated land at the complex 125 tanners have started operations," says Mausumi Guha Roy, special officer on duty, Directorate of Industries, Kolkata. "The rest have either shut shop or failed to relocate to the complex," says Qammrul Hassan, manager, Kolkata Leather Complex Tannery Association.

Several units are still functioning illegally in the Tangra district, but the state pollution control board claims ignorance."Only units within the Bantala complex have been given consent to operate by the pollution control board," says Tapash Gupta, a scientist with the board.

There are disagreements galore over land and financial issues governing the complex. Tanners who haven't relocated say infrastructure is inadequate and fragmentary, compared to the original agreement. They therefore continue to operate in the inner city areas, in violation of the court order.
From Kanpur to Kolkata The order to formalise the leather sector in Kolkata is linked to M C Mehta v Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) No 3727 of 1985, which was initially Down to Earthdirected against tanneries in Kanpur. The scope of the petition was thereafter enlarged to call upon industries located on the banks of the Ganga to stop discharging untreated effluent into it. According to a 1995 report of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, presence of chrome-based tanning among Kolkata tanners, with inappropriate wastewater drainage and collection systems, was causing serious environmental, health and hygiene problems. The report indicated that the highly congested habitations offered little or no scope for future expansion, modernisation or installation of effluent treatment plants.

With imminent signs of their businesses being thwarted, the tannery association filed a review petition highlighting what they claimed to be an 'erroneous' final judgement of the apex court. The tanners argued that the Kolkata leather tanneries case was wrongly linked to the Ganga Action Plan (gap) since discharge from the tanneries did not flow into the Ganga. They said that the tanneries were not situated near the banks of the river. But officials of the National River Conservation Directorate said the river action plan looked beyond mere direct outfalls into the river. The tanners raised another objection saying the proposed leather complex was located within the East Kolkata Wetlands. But this too was snubbed by a report submitted by the collector, South 24-Parganas, providing evidence that the claim was not true.
Land acquisition Between 1997 and 2003, the state government acquired a 445-hectare (ha) plot at a cost of Rs 18 crore, with an indicative project cost of Rs 158 crore to develop the infrastructure in the complex. It hired M L Dalmiya and Co Ltd as the build-operate-transfer partner for 30 years. Dalmiya, the project partner was made responsible for setting up the on-site infrastructure such as roads, lighting, water supply system, effluent treatment plant. All this has cost the company approximately Rs 291 crore to develop.Down to Earth The state government spent Rs 31 crore to develop the off-site infrastructure such as widening of the highway, excavation of outlet channel, setting up of 80 mw power supply station, among other facilities.

Of the 445 ha acquired, 225 ha was earmarked as saleable. About 135 ha was assigned to the tanneries from this land in the provisional detailed project report prepared by the state. This was later reduced, with inputs from the Kolkata Leather Research Institute, to around 82 ha (60 ha for relocated units and the rest for startups). Reduced allotment of water was cited as the reason.

According to the state waterways and investigation directorate, water allotment at the Bantala complex was set at 30 million litres daily (mld). "Based on estimates by the Kolkata Leather Research Institute, the area allocated was reduced due to an established thumb rule that 1.33 kg of raw hide can be processed in 1 sq m, with approximately 40 litres of water," says Sumantra Sinha Roy, marketing executive with Dalmiya.

The 53 ha deducted from the original allocation was given to the information technology (it) industry to establish a special economic zone. The move, taken because it industry is not water intensive, sparked critical comments. There were reports that Jairam Ramesh, Union minister of state for commerce, vehemently opposed the development. Eventually, however, the 53 ha, which was to be sold to the tanners at Rs 600 per sq m, fetched Dalmiya rates above Rs 3,000 per sq m.

Treatment blues
Another major bone of contention is the common effluent treatment plant. The project, initially allocated Rs 65 crore under gap-ii for six modules of five mld each, was to be shared equally by the central and state government. But the project's cost has been revised to Rs 135.44 crore, which includes effluent transport system, pumping stations, a common chrome recovery unit and hazardous waste management site (see table: Revised cost sharing). The revised cost is awaiting approval of the Cabinet Committee of Economic Affairs.

There is also a clause that says the capital cost is to be paid back by the tannery association in quarterly payments over 10 years after a three-year moratorium.

In 2006, the tannery association emphasised that Dalmiya had failed to construct the common effluent treatment plant, as promised. Officials in the Directorate of Industries say Dalmiya was reluctant to construct the treatment plant because of doubts over the tannery association's willingness to pay back the capital cost. Dalmiya appealed to the state government for a guarantee but the state government refused to comply. Later, however, Down to Earththe state government set up the first four modules (five mld treatment capacity each) of the treatment plant at a cost of Rs 61 crore. The remaining two modules will be constructed at a cost of Rs 30.58 crore, which will be shared equally by Dalmiya and the Centre.

Infrastructure has been set-up keeping in mind effluent generation of relocating units only. But land has also been reserved for new units that have shown keen interest in setting shop at the complex. 42 new units have bought land at Rs 3,000-3,200 per sq m and have been allowed to begin production due to the available capacity in the existing modules. The tanning association has two issues with the decision of allowing new units to come up in the complex, including the it industry.

Down to Earth"First, only medium- and large-scale units have started functioning. More than 90 small-scale units have not been given plots due to complexities relating to the allotment process. Second, the decision has arrested scope for any further expansion and development of the industry," says Misbahul Haq, general secretary of the tanning association.

Performance, management
The tanning association officials allege that after constructions in 2005, Dalmiya had asked for a rate of Rs 42 from tanners to treat one kilolitre (kl) of effluent. The association formed a company in October 2004 and approached the state government to manage and operate the common effluent treatment plant. Although the project partner said they charged Rs 16 per kl and not Rs 42, the management of the plant was transferred and it was officially inaugurated in July 2005 with around 40 relocated tanners. The present charges are Rs 14 per kl of treated effluent.

"Capacity is not an issue. With an increase in number of functioning units, the plant receives 14-15 mld of the 20 mld installed capacity," says Tapash Gupta of the West Bengal State Pollution Control Board. Performance of the plant has, however, at times been found below par. Data for February-April 2007 from the tannery association shows that total suspended solids ranged from 71-228 mg/l (norm: 100 mg/l); biological oxygen demand at 70-170 mg/l (norm: 100 mg/l); and sulphide levels touched a maximum of 2.8 mg/l (norm: 1 mg/l). Chromium levels for all samples were within norms. "Other heavy metal parameters are not monitored," says Hassan. "This is the first common effluent treatment plant in the state. Its performance will improve with time," Gupta assures.

Waste generated by units in 11 zones of the complex is channeled by an effluent transport system costing Rs 15.92 crore, including six effluent pumping stations. The plant has installed a diffused aeration system, which oxygenates the liquor and provides the necessary stirring action. This is followed by flow to a flash mixture where alum and polyelectrolyte is added, which helps in the settling of suspended solids. "In case of tanneries, the removed solids are considered hazardous and must be dealt with scientifically," says Gupta. "But the project partner is yet to set-up the 20-ha hazardous solid waste management site," he adds. An interim disposal facility has been set up to deal with the sludge in the meantime.

The remaining effluent is given extended aeration before it is passed through the final outlet, a 1.5-km pipeline which flows under gravity to the combined channel located opposite the complex, deemed to drain 75 per cent of Kolkata municipality's storm water and dry weather flow. But this outlet is choked and therefore an open drain has been constructed to dispose the treated effluent. The annoyed tanners say that inadequacy of the channel at times results in a backflow.

Damage control
The combined channel, which receives the treated effluent, drains into the Kulti river. The river, used for irrigation, hosts brackish water fisheries in its catchment. Deterioration in the quality of this channel is allegedly due to illegal units around the Bantala complex, which boil and dry the chamda chhaat, soild waste from the complex. "Effluent of such units is discharged untreated into the channel," says Tapan Saha, scientist with the Institute for Wetland Management and Ecological Design. Saha is currently compiling a quantitative pollution analysis of the channel and its catchment.

A 1997 report by West Bengal's department of environment said the combined channel had excessive biological oxygen demand of 110 mg/l and total suspended solids of 300 mg/l. "I cannot reveal the data until the report is published but this has started affecting fisheries downstream," says Saha.

Although the pollution control board is aware of the illegal units, it hasn't taken any action."One needs to be careful since livelihoods are at stake. We must provide guidance so that this can be done in an organised and environmentally-friendly manner," says Gupta.

But the tanners remain unimpressed. "The infrastructure is incomplete. Entry gate aside, most arterial roads within the complex are either damaged or remain unfinished," says Haq.

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