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The capital has spent more than $325 million on river-cleanup schemes, but they have little effect when the city empties 475.5 million gal. (1.8 billion L) of untreated wastewater into the river every day. Delhi's leaders are considering building a new system of sewers, but Narain says raising the price of water is a more urgently needed fix. It would be unpopular, but it would help pay for sewers and give those who have plenty of water an incentive to use less.
Torrent of Toxins
In the 19th century, Kanpur was as important as Delhi. It was a huge garrison town for the British army and then grew into a major producer of leather goods. Kanpur's 400 tanneries still make up its largest industry. The population has grown by 60% since 1990, to more than 3.2 million, making it the biggest city between Delhi and Kolkata. Growth has generated the usual urban ills: traffic, pollution and high real estate prices, plus the special burden of the tanneries: 8 million gal. (30 million L) a day of wastewater contaminated with chromium and other chemical by-products. Like Delhi, Kanpur's wastewater-treatment system is chronically inadequate.
But unlike the capital, Kanpur does not have clean drinking water delivered from upstream. Instead, two additional canals along the Ganges divert water to farmers in the powerful rural areas, so by the time the river reaches Kanpur, it is already depleted. As a result, Kanpur has the most widespread water poverty of any major Indian city: a third of its residents get by on less than 13 gal. (50 L) per day. The city's leading environmental crusader, Rakesh Jaiswal, is worn out from a two-decade case against tannery pollution. His legal battle with the tanneries resulted in the closure of 127 egregious polluters in 1998. But closing tanneries just pushed them farther downstream, so Jaiswal, 51, has shifted his energy toward getting them to pay for their own wastewater treatment rather than expect the city or state to foot the bill.
Jaiswal has found an unlikely ally in Imran Siddiqui, director of one of Kanpur's oldest and largest tanneries. Super Tannery is in the heart of Kanpur's traditional leather district, called Jajmau. Pony carts still carry hides along the cobblestone streets nearby, but this factory is a huge beneficiary of the global economy. It makes nearly 5,000 pairs of shoes a day for export to the U.S., Europe and Australia, worth $39 million a year. Siddiqui is proud of its success, but he wants to rid his industry of its bad reputation. He recently took 11 other tannery executives on a trip to Italy to show them how that country's 10,000 tanneries thrive despite strict regulations. When their treated wastewater enters the Arno River, Siddiqui says, "it is crystal clear."
Convinced that Kanpur can do the same, he submitted a $76 million proposal to the central government that would include everything from a centralized effluent pipeline to an off-site landfill for recovered chrome. Tanners would pay according to the amount of wastewater they produce, giving them an incentive to use fewer chemicals and less water. "The government has to be strict," he says. Jaiswal should be heartened by this enthusiasm and by the central government's approval of $250 million in water and sewer improvements for the city. But he worries that even if Kanpur cleans up its stretch of the Ganges, it can't increase the amount of water flowing into the city from other, more politically important places upstream. "If things continue as they are," he says, "in the next five years, there will be no Ganga in Kanpur."
An Unholy Mess
By the time the Ganges reaches Varanasi, India's holiest city, the river has been somewhat restored by several tributaries. This influx helps dilute the impact of pollution, and there is enough water to carry boatloads of Hindu pilgrims who come to offer prayers in this temple town of 1.3 million. Even so, water levels have fallen steeply: the Ganges once had an average depth of about 197 ft. (60 m) around Varanasi, but in some places it is now only 33 ft. (10 m). Upstream there are stretches where the Ganges has disappeared completely. The blame, again, goes to Nehru's secular temple. "A significant change happened after Tehri [was built]," says chemical engineer S.N. Upadhyay, one of the first scientists to document the steady decline of the river's health.