Kanpur: Ganges Under Threat
The Indians have a handy expression for navigating their roads: “Good horn, good brakes, good luck.”
After a 8-hour drive to Kanpur in the morning and another10-hour, truck-congested drive back to Varanasi that night, we noticed that the horn is particularly valuable. Many of the trucks were painted all around in bright colors–slanting black eyes on the front, on the sides, leaves and flowers, and on the back, almost always “Horn please.” How counter to our Western sensibilities, where honking is considered rude and reserved only for emergencies. Here, honking is a language of its own, like Morse code. One long blow means, “Move aside.” Several sharp rapid beeps signal, “I’m here behind you.” And a repeated series of ten-second blasts means, “I really mean it: Get out of the way now!”
It was 4:30 am, and we had just arrived back at the hotel. But in spite of the long hours spent in transit that day, the trip was so worthwhile in terms of the story of water.
400 tanneries dump their poisoned effluent into the Ganges in Kanpur: chromium, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, sulfuric acid, chemical dyes and heavy metals. We walked by one of the four primary industrial drains, spewing a brown waterfall at an astonishing rate. Chromium is a tanning agent that strengthens leather and makes it water repellent. It can cause a wide range of health problems: nosebleeds, ulcers and holes in the nasal septum when inhaled; skin ulcers when touched; kidney and liver damage, stomach ulcers, convulsions, and even death when consumed. It pollutes the Ganges here at 75 times the permitted government level.
Thank heavens for environmental crusaders like Rakesh Jaiswal, the man who we journeyed to Kanpur to see. “In 1998 we filed a court case, and 127 tanneries were closed in Kanpur,” he said. “We also put pressure on these polluting industries to set up chrome recovery plants to trap the chrome right at the source. Now all the tanneries have such plants. The problem is they do not always run them. So, we go one step forward and two steps backwards.”
We tried to visit the tanneries themselves, but weren’t allowed inside to film. Instead, we found ourselves in the slums just outside the giant factories. Remnants of decaying cowhide carpeted the landscape, with massive towers of the scraps scattered like temples to death. The stench, metallic and sweet, soaked into our brains. It seemed like some apocalyptic vision of a future where pollution has gone unchecked and our freshwater resources have run dry.
Dozens of children live here in the midst of this, their bright black and sometimes green eyes and smiles covered in a fine layer of dust. Imagine how much better their lives will be if the government, activists, tannery owners, and community members are able to work together to treat the toxic effluent or even avoid its production in the first place, as Jaiswal so fervently hopes to accomplish. Imagine their world with a clean, pure river running nearby where they can swim and play, with water they can drink without getting sick. Such a dream is possible. It has happened before in other parts of the world. It can happen here, and everywhere, if we make it a priority.