Kanpur: Qazi Nayyer Jamal rides his motorcycle to Jajmau, an industrial suburb of Kanpur along the Ganges, from his home in the city area, passing through several old tanneries, to reach the leather factory his father started about 50 years ago. It's closed for three months, still he goes there often.
Jamal's Makhdoom Enterprises is among several tanneries in Jajmau which were shut for the Kumbh Mela, and he fears they are likely to remain so.
"We were ordered to shut our tanneries for three months — from December to March — for Kumbh. We did it out of respect for the Hindu festival. But we never thought we would be left in the lurch after the Mela, since no order has come to reopen the units," the 60-year-old said.
Tanneries pump out highly polluted water into the Ganga river and this was a major reason they were ordered to close ahead of the Mela. But many families are dependent on the local industry that earned Kanpur the moniker of "Leather City".
"We have followed all norms for discharge of effluent into the river but authorities made a scapegoat out of us, portraying us as the main reason behind the pollution of the river," Jamal said.
The leather industry in Kanpur began about 150 years ago under the British Raj. Later, Indians entered the trade and it flourished, drawing buyers from faraway places, including Europe and the United States.
Mohammed Arshi, 38 and vice-president of city-based Leather Industries Welfare Association (LIWA) of about 125 small and big tanneries, said Kanpur is a famed leather city and India exports leather products — like belts, shoes and horse saddles — to Europe and the US, besides domestic consumption by the armed forces and civilians.
All that is likely to stop soon, he said.
Arshi said the industry has been "targeted" as tannery-owners are not really seen as a vote bank by the ruling or other parties, adding the uncertainty has led to importers moving to other markets in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
Jamal agreed with Arshi. He said the tanneries are dying a slow death.
"I may be attached to the legacy of my father but my two sons have moved away. Seeing the trouble I face, they have also asked me to quit it," Jamal lamented.
"Many second or third-generation families have quit the trade," he said.
One of his sons is a fashion designer, who graduated from NIFT and now works in Jordan, and the other is a marine engineer, he said.
Jamal hopes the new government will do something to rescue the industry.
Uttar Pradesh MSME Minister and BJP candidate from Kanpur Satyadev Pachauri, however, said the tanneries were polluting the Ganga river by discharging effluent, including chromium, and the owners will have to either upgrade technology to curb pollution or move to other sources of livelihood.
"We will not compromise with the cleanliness of Ganga as envisioned in the National Mission for Clean Ganga of the central government," Pachauri said.
Arshi, the LIWA vice president, said the industry has lost Rs 7,000 crore in three months due to closure.
The effluent from a tannery first goes through one of the four pumping stations and then, eventually, through a central treatment plant as per the norms. “So, we want to ask the state government and the pollution control authorities, how are we polluting the river?” he said.
"In the name of pollution and because it's a Muslim-dominated industry, we have been made a villain," he alleged.
Under previous governments, Arshi said, tannery-owners used to voluntarily stop work for three days before each 'nahaan' (holy dip) of the Kumbh.
There are about 400 registered tanneries in Kanpur, of which 262 were operating. After the Kumbh Mela, only 26 are operating, he said.