Cleaning the Ganga was a major election plank for the victorious Narendra Modi-led NDA. The same Ganga where 80% of untreated waste is dumped in from 138 open drains. So when I decided to take a journey down the river, I did what no traveller does. Instead of the ghats, I decided to travel down the nalas (drains) that have become the new-age tributaries to the holiest of the Indian holy rivers. I chose Kanpur and Varanasi, based on a 2013 report of the Central Pollution Control Board which called the stretch between these two cities as the most polluted part of Ganga’s course.
Kanpur has 400 leather units spouting cocktails of dangerous chemicals and heavy metals into the river. My first stop was Sisamau Nala, one of the largest open drains in Kanpur. The dense slummy settlements of Bakarmandi caps around the head of Sisamau. Every day 197 million litres of dark sewage water is flushed out of the city through this nala into the Ganga. The residents of Bakarmandi are horrified by some of the contents that pass down the drain. Rotting cadavers, complains one of the residents. Carcasses of animals, complains another resident when we met the slum dwellers at seven o’clock in the morning.
Every monsoon, the nala overflows, flooding their homes with excreta and the filth that it carries. The safai karmacharis (cleaning staff) wade through this bemired drain to scoop out anything solid that may obstruct the flow of the black water. I saw 20 karamcharis who work for about half an hour and are paid daily wages by a contractor. They collect mounds of plastic, polyethylene, cloth, and other sundries right next to the drain which is pushed back into the drain in the afternoon again. This has become a daily cycle.
As I continue downstream, I come across a municipal dump yard in Khalasi Line. This is perhaps one the cleanest dump yards I had ever seen. “The waste collected from our homes is seldom taken to the dump. The small hand carts that collect waste are emptied in the nala on its way to the dump,” says Ram Kumar Maurya, a resident of Gualtoli. The locality has a thriving vegetable and meat market along the nala, and all the waste from the market and the homes in the area are dumped right in, which ultimately reaches the Ganga.
The mouth of the Sisamau Nala can be easily confused for a natural waterfall, except there are two concrete bulwarks that guide the water into the river. There was also a nostril-numbing stench that gave away the drain’s dirty credentials. The bank of the river near the outfall was covered with plastic, decaying clothes and animal carcasses. On the banks, boatmen sit with fishing-lines trying to catch the hybrid Tilapia, an invasive species of fish which they sell in the local markets. This is the only fish that can survive in these heavily polluted waters.
I wanted to go close to the mouth of the nala and approached the fishing boatmen, but none of them wanted to take me near. They were scared of their oars getting caught in the plastic and the clothes dumped down the drain. There was also a large volume of water that was being deposited at this confluence, which created strong currents making it harder for boatmen to steer their boats. But after 15 minutes of cajoling and coaxing, Rajesh Kumar Kashyap decided to hazard the trip. He set a condition though: I would have to accompany the boatman to his farm, opposite the nala on the other side of the river.
As I clicked the photographs, I could feel a mist originating from the waterfall leaving a dark oily film on my hair, skin, and clothes that stayed with me for the rest of my working day.
I kept my promise and accompanied the boatman to his farm – a small patch of land on which they grow gourds and melons. Every season, that is, every six months, Rs 5,000 is all they profit from the melon plantation.
“If we use water from the river, all the plants die,” says Rajesh. Rajan, his uncle, also told me how he lost his reti, or land that he used to cultivate, after the construction of a barrage nearby. He wasn’t alone. Just like him, about 100 more people lost their reti.
About 400 million litres of waste flows every day into the river in Kanpur. Wastewater pipes from buildings jut out like turrets discharging kitchen and toilet slurry. I travel up the river, the sights around the various nalas look all the same. I wondered how people live here? Was it that the residents on the banks have lost their olfactory abilities, the stench may have cauterised their receptors.
I saw the Parmat, Kalighatiya, Baba, Police line, and the Bhagwat Das Ghat nalas. And there was also the Peruniya Nala which releases 186 million litres a day of sewage into the river. “More than ghats, it’s the nalas of Kanpur that are like landmarks to the people living near the banks of the Ganga,” says Rajesh, my boatman.
I decided to call it a day after our boatman refused to go beyond Golaghat Nala. The riverbed was shallow here because of heavy sedimentation and hard for boats to ply. The sun too was on its last lap, and the stench and muck had made our brains go a little dizzy.
I started at 5 a.m. the next day. Today, I had planned to visit Jajmau, known for its tannery clusters that produce leather good for export. Jajmau is located close to the Lucknow-Kanpur highway about 30 minutes drive from the city. It has 400 units that make leather and industrial glue.
Once again, the stench welcomes us in Jajmau. I am warned that people working in these units do not like journalists clicking photographs, so I had to be cautious. My task at hand was to find the Wazidpore Nala that releases 54 million litres of industrial wastewater every day into the Ganga.
The people living around the tannery cluster in Jajmau are of slight build. This is not because of hard manual labour but because eating a meal becomes difficult. People, most of them tannery workers and their families we talked to complained that they had lost appetite. A drive along Wajidpore Nala is enough to make one dizzy. Thirty-years-old Amina Bibi, the wife of a tannery worker, says her eight-year-old son Anwar, always complains of stomach ache. “The doctor keeps telling us to live in a clean and hygienic place. We have nowhere to go. Being sick is our fate which we have to accept,” says Amina Bibi.
Ganga looks quite different at the outfall of the nala. The water is black and foamy. The chemicals in the effluents discharged by the nala flow down into the river. Ganga is turbid and thick here, oxygen bubbling out of it. For over a stretch of about 10 km of the river between Jajmau and Fatehpur, the Ganga stays this way.
Very close to the outfall is the Jana village. This village with about 120 families is said to be cursed. People seldom visit their relatives who stay in Jana. Those who do visit Jana, ensure that they do not eat or drink anything unless it is packaged.
Water and the soil of this village are poisoned, says Anil Kumar, a resident of the village. “Women give birth to sick children. Every child or man or woman in this village is sickly. The chemicals eat away the fingers and toes of those who work in the fields,” says Kumar.
Kumar’s mother, 82-year-old Ishwari Devi, has no finger left. It looks as if she has leprosy, but her son insists that it was because of the water laden with poisonous chemicals that the tanneries released on their fields, which crippled her and others in the village. Ishwari Devi, who had lost her husband early, used to work in the fields to earn a living.
Shiv Charan Nishad, another elderly resident of the village, has a hearing problem. He too has deformed fingers and toes. Initially, he thought it was symptomatic of leprosy but the doctor he was consulting told him that it was the handiwork of the chemicals.
The animals in this village have also stopped giving milk. There is only one hand-pump in the village, which is free of contamination, so animals are given water from this hand-pump. None of the traders at the Ramadevi Vegetable Market a few kilometres away will buy the greens if they come to know that it has come from Jana village, says Kumar.
Tubewell water turns yellow once exposed to air. The iron poles and gates at people’s houses have started corroding. “Even the air has something in it. It eats away metals,” says 45-year-old Rama Devi who shows her anklets and her silver rings which have turned black. And, I too got a tiny dose of this wretched place. While walking, I stepped into a ditch. My toes started to itch a feeling similar to touching diluted acid used to clean toilets in homes.
Gautam Kashyap, a resident of Jana, says that about 10 years ago, the villagers contributed money and approached a member of a non-profit organisation to help them to take the tanneries to court. The representative of the non-profit filed a case in Allahabad High Court but later fled with the money and documents that were entrusted to him. “He was being paid off by the industry owners,” Gautam said.
I was confused. Dabka Nala, which came after Wajidpore Nala, is a drain. Why would anybody build a temple beside it? But there it was! On the banks of the nala was a worn down signboard with Dabkeswar Mahadev Mandir written on it. My driver had a very simple answer. “Even Assi and Varuna were rivers, but now they are known as nalas.” I called up a senior official of Jal Nigam to ask him whether Dabka was ever a small tributary of Ganga and urbanisation had turned it into a nala. But he said he did not have any information or records on it. The officials in Kanpur and Varanasi are truly ignorant of the resources present in the ministry. The urban planning of cities like Kanpur is so haphazard because of the lack of information and records.
And with this, my journey across the nalas of Kanpur came to an end. It was extremely disheartening to see the criminal wastage of money on cleaning the river. The government keeps organising seminars and conferences and consultations. The court keeps ordering status checks and regulation of factories. But, the helplessness of the situation in Kanpur is appalling. While on one side, the municipal corporation has failed miserably to control illegal encroachment of drainage channels and treatment of domestic wastewater, Samajwadi Party’s heavyweight Irfan Solanki has made sure that leather industries remain out of the purview of the law. Caught between the administrative inefficiency and vote bank politics, Ganga dies a quiet death in Kanpur.