Rejuvenating the Ganges

The “Pollution Prevention and Efficient Water Use in the Kanpur-Unnao Leather Cluster” is one of the pioneer projects for Solidaridad Asia, helping to restore the environment and livelihood around the Ganges river.

The Ganga in India is the third largest river in the world. The sacred river is however considered to be one of the most polluted water bodies worldwide, surrounded by several major cities, including Kanpur. Renowned as an export powerhouse for leather products, the tannery sector in Kanpur has lately been in the limelight as the primary source of industrial pollution of the Ganga. The various processes of tanning like washing, liming, fleshing, splitting and finishing involve high use of various chemicals, thus posing formidable environmental risks. It also has an adverse impact on the socio-economic wellbeing of the entire ecosystem.

The “Pollution Prevention and Efficient Water Use in the Kanpur-Unnao Leather Cluster” is one of the pioneer projects for Solidaridad Asia. The project has gone beyond targeting and addressing the environmental impact through introducing alternative green technologies to reduce effluent water discharge, to addressing the key socio-economic issues. As described by Dr. Shatadru Chattopadhyay, Managing Director of Solidaridad Asia, “the project critically addresses the issues of livelihood for tannery workers and smallholder farmers who are affected in the downstream region.”

Occupational Health & Safety as a Priority

Solidaridad Asia focussed on addressing one of the key issues neglected in the MSME and manufacturing sector – occupational health and safety (OHS) of workers. The leather manufacturing industry has grown tremendously, exposing workers to hazardous machinery, toxic chemicals, high noise, dusts and unsafe working conditions. Solidaridad Asia’s intervention in OHS has been a “game changer for small tanneries” as described by Mr. Azhar, Senior Official of the Globe Tannery Group. He further mentioned that the small tanneries were now capable of making the changes and implementing international guidelines to meet the global standards.

A Solution for Downstream Functions

A severe brunt of the effluent discharge was witnessed by the downstream users of the river water, especially the farmers using the water for irrigation. Farmers experienced low productivity of yield and deterioration of public health due to the presence of heavy metals in the water that reaches the food supply chain. Solidaridad Asia conducted a pilot adopting innovation that uses algae to reduce the ill effects of the untreated water. The pilot results were encouraging and are now placed for scale up. Additionally, capacity building of the farmers was undertaken for adoption of better agricultural practices. 

Introduction of Modern Technologies

Solidaridad Asia addressed the negative impact on local communities while primarily ensuring the adoption of solutions that enable even the micro tanneries to continue to operate. Mr. Mohd Ahsan, owner of Akmal & Sons Tannery, highlighted the valuable insights gained from the water metre.

Earlier, my practice was to take water in the process visually and on a guess basis. But when Solidaridad installed water metres, I actually found that I was consuming more water than required. This water metre helped me to reduce my water consumption by 35-40 percent.”

Mr. Mohd Ahsan, owner of Akmal & Sons Tannery

The project has introduced state-of-the-art eco-friendly technologies and processes to address issues of effluent discharge and promote optimization of water usage in the industries. Mr. Fahad Kareem, Director of the Super House Tannery, said, “we are able to remove 25-30 per cent of salt from the hides by using the de-salting machine as compared with our manual dusting process. It directly reduces the TDS load in our soaking discharge water and the recovered salt is collected and sent back to the hide supplier.”

The project has effectively and successfully addressed the most widely debated and publicized challenge of the clean Ganga project and has served as a blueprint for similar river basin management challenges. From the learnings and experiences of the Kanpur project, Solidaridad Asia conceptualized and successfully scaled projects in Savar, Bangladesh, concentrating on chemical management and in the Kolkata leather cluster, India, focusing primarily on solid-waste management.

Prolonged Tannery Shutdown

Amidst tannery lockdowns during 2018-2019, the project supported the leather cluster to remain operational, saving the jobs of workers. Further, the project has contributed to the production capacity and health of the tannery workers while also ensuring that the farming communities that depend on the re-use of waste water for their agricultural production witnessed an enhancement. 

In 2019, Anil Kumar, a tannery worker, mentioned, “ever since the closure of the tanneries, we are not getting salaries. I have four school-going children and their fees need to be paid. I also have the responsibility of old parents. I can’t meet these expenses now.” During several months of 2018-2019, over 300,000 workers were left without jobs as the governments shut tanneries amidst raised concerns over waste-water discharge in the river Ganga. Workers experienced months of tannery closure and loss of income. Solidaridad along with the Dutch Embassy in India made extensive efforts for the opening of the tanneries. Our efforts, combined with those of the industry, led to the opening of tanneries after a prolonged period of nine months.