Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Unnao: "Agar ek pregnant worker ko karza chukaane ke liye apni kokh bechni pad rahi hai, toh aap isi se is industry ki haalat samajh sakte hai (If a pregnant worker has to sell her unborn child to settle her debts, this alone can help you understand the condition of tanneries here)," said Kaushlendra Chandra Mishra, the owner of Triveni Tanners in Unnao's Jajmao area.
According to local media reports, one Meraj Alam's wife, a resident of Amrud Bazaar and a tannery worker, sold her unborn seven-month-old to her landlord as the family had taken a loan of Rs 10,000 from him. After the news went viral, Jajmau Police Station took cognisance of the matter and raided a few places but made no arrests.
The once-prosperous tanning centres at Unnao's Jajmao area and Kanpur, today wear a deserted look, with the tea sellers and scrap dealers moving base. Forced to shut down by an 18 November order for the Kumbh Mela, ostensibly to prevent the Ganga from being polluted with the waste from these tanneries, the centres remain closed even seven weeks after the religious gathering ended on 4 March.
Home to more than 400 large tanneries with an annual turnover of Rs 8,000 crore, Jajmao area was known for its leather products, with big players like Mirza Tanners and Taj Shoes setting up manufacturing units in the neighbourhood.
“The industry is already on a ventilator,” said Mishra, who is also an office-bearer of the Small Tanners' Association. “If the shutdown continues much longer, the leather industry in the state will come to an end, and no one will be able to revive it.”
Kaushlendra mishra said the Small Tanners Association is contemplating boycotting the Lok Sabha election.
Officials of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board and the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam are not ready to say anything about reopening the tanneries. Officials of both departments turned down this reporter's queries five times. Sources say that because the decision related to the tanneries were made at the highest level of the state government, under the direct supervision of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and a few of his trusted officials, it is impossible to say why and for how long the closure will last.
Also, accusations of the move being religiously motivated by the saffron government gains currency every day.
Unfortunately for the tannery owners, no candidate in the running from the Unnao constituency — be it Congress’ Annu Tandon, or Samajwadi Party's Arun Shankar Shukla, or BJP’s Sakshi Maharaj — has brought up their plight during their election campaigns. Uttar Pradesh minister Satyadev Pachauri, who is contesting from Kanpur, maintains that the decision was for a temporary shutdown of the tanneries for the duration of the Kumbh Mela.
“The units will reopen, and we will also work to restart the closed textile mills in the district,” he said, while on his campaign trail.
Not surprisingly, the Small Tanners Association is contemplating boycotting the Lok Sabha election, said Mishra.
“Voting for the BJP’s development promise last time turned out to be a curse for us. What we got in return is a four-month closure, due to which we are suffering huge losses," he said, adding that a few labourers had committed suicide because of debt. Jajmau Police Station confirmed the cases.
Home to more than 400 large tanneries with an annual turnover of Rs 8,000 crore, Jajmao area was known for its leather products.
Muslims and Dalits ran the bulk of the tanneries in Jajmao.
“The majority of owners are Muslims, but a large chunk of the Hindu population, too, is linked with the industry and is suffering because of the closure order,” said Arshi Khan, a tannery owner. “We do not know when we will be allowed to reopen. The labourers have migrated to other places, and the machines are developing problems, which is costing us.”
With no income, every tannery owner has had to resort to seek loans to survive.
“There is no one to solve our problems,” Khan said. “Even scrap dealers have stopped coming to our areas because they know we have nothing to sell as our stock of untanned leather is of no use now. Everyone talked about 'Make in India'. We were hoping it will give our business a boost. But what is happening to us is very unfortunate."
Chandan Kumar, a 39-year-old chemical supplier with a small shop situated near Gangaghat Police Station, says he has lost all hope for the leather industry.
“I have not sold even 10 millilitres of chemicals in the past four months,” he said. “I am now trying my hand at some other profession. I have spent all my savings, and no one is willing to lend me money for to pay for my children's admission at a private school.”
Tannery owners Arshi, Kaushlendra Mishra and others at the office of Nayar Jamal, former president of the Small Tanners Association.
Nayar Jamal, former president of the Small Tanners Association, also believes it would be better to boycott the Lok Sabha election to show the government the value of every single vote since they failed to clean the Ganga, and in an election year, ordered the closure of tanneries.
“The public should know that a treatment plant was made especially for tanneries, so the question of wastes from their drains directly entering the Ganges should not arise," Jamal asserted.
According to Magsaysay Award Winner Rajendra Singh, also known as the Waterman of India, the main cause for pollution in the Ganga is dumping of untreated sewage and industrial waste.
"You cannot blame tanneries alone for the pollution," Singh said. "So shutting down the tanneries of Kanpur and Unnao for such a long period cannot be justified."
Requesting anonymity, a chief environment officer with the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board said that the tanneries had been blamed for polluting the Ganga for no reason.
"The main cause of pollution, from what our office has analysed, is the dumping of industrial waste, specifically from the sugar industries in Western Uttar Pradesh," he said. "The water from these tanneries was going to the treatment plant, and only treated water was being dumped in the river. It is totally wrong to blame the tanneries for the pollution."
“I smell a conspiracy behind this,” said Taj Alam, president of Uttar Pradesh Leather Industries Association. “CM Yogiji told our representatives that he does not have any problem with the tannery operations, but officers have yet to pass orders to reopen them.”
Jamal further said that the tanning industry in Jajmao and Kanpur is almost dead and “buyers are now going to Pakistan, Brazil, Bangladesh, Vietnam and other nations”.
Jawed Iqbal, regional chairman of the Council of Leather Exports, said the Government of West Bengal had allotted plots for 12 tanneries, and soon, these tanneries would shift to the Bantala leather industry cluster near Kolkata and bring in more than Rs 1,000 crore of investment in that state.
"It is unfortunate that people of our own state are being rendered jobless. The loss, which has yet to be estimated, in the leather market from these two districts (Kanpur and Unnao, or the Jajmau cluster) will not be less than Rs 3,000 crore."
The author is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and state editor of101Reporters