Hides and Roses

I have been India for the past month researching a planned film on the energy crisis in India (more on that later). While visiting Kanpur, India’s most polluted city, as well as the center of it’s leather export trade, I came across the story of a village on the outskirts of the city that I think reflects the complexity of resolving pressing environmental challenges in India.

Pyondi¬†village is located barely a few kilometers east of Jajmau. Most of it’s residents were farmers who cultivated flowers, which they eventually sold outside temples, or at festivals or weddings. Their income came chiefly from the cultivation of roses, which are in high demand in North India, especially in weddings.

Over the past four  years, however, not a single rose has bloomed in their fields. This is largely because of the 400 odd leather tanneries that are located a few kilometers from the village, in Jajmau. The tanneries, many of which supply to international luxury brands, use a particular tanning technique called chrome tanning. While chrome tanning makes the leather supple and flexible, ideal for handbags and as furniture upholstery, both of which are produced and exported from here, it produces an effluence that on reaching the water, makes it unfit for use for any living organism, least of all for growing roses.

Now, the rose farmers look for work in these tanneries. Lalla Singh, who showed me his failed rose crops tells me that many have left the village to live in the squalor of Jajmau. Lalla Singh himself has taken to cultivating much less profitable marigolds. The wheat grown in this area produces flour dark grey in colour.

On the way from the village to the city, the smell of marigolds and open fields gives way to the stench of hides and smoke from a hundred coal fires.

The government does run a water treatment plant nearby. All tanneries are also required to treat their waste before releasing it. Many comply with the regulations, however many others simply grease some palms and get away with inspections. Eventually this rewards defaulters and penalizes the tanneries that comply.

Added to this is the states apathy towards villages like Pyondi. The village has never had 24 hour electricity. Recent incentives by the government have reduced the power cuts in villages to ‘only’ eight hours a day. Many in the village are not able to install pumps required to pump clean groundwater that could be found deep in the earth.

A project to separate sewage and drinking water has been running for a number of months. As a result the road to Pyondi is dug up and barely drivable.

As I see it the chief problem here is really the lack of any political will to solve the energy and environmental problems affecting the area. A drive to ‘save the Ganga’, the river that flows through the area, has taken on shades of religious identity politics which has strong influence in this region. The tanneries are largely Muslim owned, while the group that runs the campaign is a Hindu charity organization. This keeps the discourse around the issue to grandstanding, rather than really look for solutions to the problem.

It almost seems that corruption, apathy and lack of robust implementation of law have doomed the Kanpur area to environmental disaster, a feeling shared by many residents. The resulting malaise has now spread beyond the city to have wither Pyondi’s roses.

PS: My browser is acting all weird. Pics will be coming soon.

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