| Erin Brockovich
Kanpur, Oct. 14: Wanted: An Erin Brockovich for Kanpur.
A legal assistant in California law firm, whose untiring zeal and enterprise won $333 million as compensation to the town’s 600-odd residents, Brockovich was immortalised on celluloid last year by an Oscar-winning performance by Julia Roberts.
Unfortunately, Kanpur has no such luck although it is ripe for a character like Brockovich. The city’s innumerable leather tanneries are fast turning it into a chromium wasteland.
More than 1,124 tonnes of chromium waste is lying open on the banks of the Ganga, which runs through the city, thanks to a treatment plant for the tanneries set up seven years back, according to studies conducted by scientists of the Indian Institute of Technology.
Even the water treated by the plant — used to irrigate the fields of nearly 5,000 villagers residing on the city’s outskirts — is highly contaminated.
Its chromium levels are more than 750 times the permitted level, mercury levels as high as 120 times and nitrate at nearly 130 times the permitted level.
“Chromium is getting into Kanpur’s food chain and contaminating groundwater. But, no one wants to talk about it,” says B.P. Shukla of the Central Pollution Control Board. “We’ve found high amounts of chromium in vegetables, especially tomatoes.”
Across the city, notices put up by the pollution control board warn the public about the hazards of the pollutants. In Rakhimandi, for example, it warns against the use of groundwater since it is “polluted and certified as hazardous”.
Soon after the pollution control board erected boards in Kanpur’s Jajmau area, a treatment plant — commissioned to treat wastewater from the city’s tanneries — gurgled to life.
But it created more problems than it solved. “The residual sludge from the treatment plant — with traces of chromium — is dumped right out in the open in Jajmau,” points out Rakesh Jaiswal of EcoFriends, a local NGO.
In effect, chromium from the tanneries that was once polluting the Ganga is now directly contaminating the city. “We have seen even the state pollution control board trucks dump sludge in the open,” Jaiswal says.
Officials are reluctant to talk about it. But they concede that the treatment plant dumps 22 tonnes of sludge every day.
“This solid waste contains chromium, a hazardous substance, in good measure: 18-22 milligram per gram,” says one official.
This means that 440 kg of chromium is dumped every day. The plant has already dumped 1,124.20 tonnes chromium on Kanpur’s soil since it was commissioned seven years ago.
“Dumped in the open, chromium waste can enter the body when people breathe, eat food or drink water containing it,” warns Padma Vankar of IIT Kanpur.
Known to be carcinogenic, it can cause kidney and liver damage, stomach ulcers, convulsions, and even death; dermal exposures may cause skin ulcers, she points out. A visit to Jajmau villages proves that this is already happening.
“Look at these fields and you will know what is happening,” says Rajaram, who lives in a village behind the treatment plant. “Whenever we pump treated water from the plant, our crops die.”
“If a health survey is conducted this seemingly vigorous town may just have a few ulcers and unexplained deaths to investigate,” says Upendra Sharma, a social activist.