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Above: Poorly treated wastewater being released into the Ganges

The Clean Ganga project and the long closure of tanneries in the run-up to the Kumbh Mela sees the leather industry taking up the West Bengal government’s offer to shift base to the state

By Govind Pant Raju in Lucknow

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath never loses an opportunity to affirm his government’s commitment to make the state investor-friendly. But his actions seem to have the opposite effect, even driving out existing businesses and forcing them to seek greener pastures elsewhere.

The leather industry, one of the largest in the state, is already reeling under massive losses and has been shut down during the on-going Kumbh Mela to prevent pollution of the Ganges at Prayagraj. The tanneries are now seriously looking at offers from the West Bengal government, which has promised land as well as other incentives.

Keeping in mind the prime ministers’s pet Namami Gange Programme and the National Mission for Clean Ganga, Adityanath had ordered officials to close down tanneries in Kannauj and Kanpur in a phased manner. Tannery owners say the Kanpur leather industry was already in crisis and these orders have only added to their woes. Closure of the factories for three months will lead to missed delivery deadlines and huge operational losses—not to speak of largescale unemployment.

The Uttar Pradesh Leather Industries Association (UPLIA) vice-president, Iftikharul Ameean, said that around one lakh people used to work in the tanneries. The closure has led to around Rs 12,000 crore worth of foreign orders being cancelled and thousands of daily-wage workers from other states being forced to return home.

On June 29, 2018, the Regional Pollution Control Board issued notice to all tannery operators, ordering a three-month closure in preparation for the Kumbh Mela. The notice caused a stir in the industry.

The shutdown, now in place, has led to the industry losing in excess of Rs 2,000 crore every month. There are 400 tanneries in Kanpur and another 40 in neighbouring Unnao district and these provide for the bulk of the export of leather shoes and raw materials. Thanks to the closure, they have taken a hit.

According to tannery operator Assad Qureshi, demonetisation and raids by the National Green Tribunal in Jajmau have led to a reduction of tanneries, from 402 to 249, since 2017. Industries associated with the tanneries are in a fix. The district has more than 200 factories that are in one way or the other related to the leather industry. Currently, the units are running at 50 percent of their production capacity, and as the problems mount, businesses have started to mull the option of winding up operations and shifting base to where the atmosphere is more conducive for business.

That the pollution levels in the Ganga have reached alarming levels is an undeniable fact. Among the main reasons for this is the 150-year-old tannery industry. The tanneries do not use environment-friendly vegetable dyes. Instead, they use highly toxic chromium which is a cost-effective alternative. Studies have shown that some factories discharge chromium 100 times the permissible level. An analysis done by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, in April 2014 pointed towards one factory that treated industrial waste—it received wastewater with 192 mg per litre chromium, more than 90 times permissible limits.

Though the Uttar Pradesh State Industrial Development Corporation (UPSIDC) records show there are 170 tanneries in Kanpur, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) says there are over 400 tanneries currently operating in the area. The state water authorities allege that tannery owners, after getting permission to open a plant, simply increase the number of units on single registrations and claim that the new factories are only sub-properties of the main property. In most places, flow metres which check the amount of wastewater flowing from tanneries to drains, do not function. Ditto for the chromium recovery units which have been set up according to the UPPCB guidelines.

Of the 400 tanneries in Kanpur, around 250, both big and small, operate out of the Jajmau area. The Allahabad High Court suggested that tanneries should be shifted to areas which have provision to treat effluents before they are dumped into the river. After UPPCB suggested relocation of tanneries from Kanpur, the UPSIDC allotted 69 hectares for tanneries at Ramaipur on the outskirts of Kanpur. But the proposed relocation failed to take off.

Javed Iqbal, regional chairman of the leather exports council, said: “The tannery operators do not intend to shift business to Ramaipur because the same problem will come up there also as it is only 20 kilometres from the city.”

It is in this context that the invitation from the West Bengal government comes as a morale booster for the leather industry. Representatives of the industry have already met West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra, who has assured them all requisite facilities to run operations there.

At least 12 tanneries in Kanpur were allotted land and given other incentives to shift operations by the West Bengal government during the recent Bengal Global Business Summit 2019. Ameean said he had applied for 5,000 sqm of land and was immediately allotted a 3,000-sqm plot during the business summit. This is the first phase of approval of applications by the West Bengal government and more are expected to get their approvals soon.

UP Health Minister Siddharth Nath Singh said: “It is up to the owners to decide where to set up their business. Wherever they go, they will have to follow the guidelines of the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court.” He said it was not for the UP government to interfere in businessmen setting up their ventures elsewhere.

Reacting to the developments, state Industries Minister Satish Mahana said only Kanpur could provide the “excellent environment” for the industry and “in Kolkata, there is no favourable atmosphere for the tannery industry”.

The issue could add to the already tense relationship between the central government and West Bengal Chief  Minister Mamata Banerjee, and has the potential to become a flashpoint in the upcoming general election.

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