The annual global leather trade is estimated to be worth $159.89 billion with the Indian share being approximately 3%. The annual export business of this sector for India is approximately $10 billion and its leather industry is the sixth largest in the world. The sector is delicensed and dereserved; free to import state-of-the-art machinery and equipment and, as a result, the quality and competitiveness of the Indian leather industry has grown, benefitting from government policies of zero duty on all types of raw material imports, embellishments and components; concessional duty on import of specified machinery; and the liberal import-export of consumer products and components. At the time of press, India accounts for 10% (235 million pieces, two billion square feet of leather) of global supplies of raw skins and hides.

Animal slaughter in India happens mostly in the unregulated sector and recording, in terms of compliance towards standards for discharge of effluents as per the 1986 Environment (Protection) Act is concerned, is rare. Overhauling abattoirs, modernising slaughterhouse practices, cutting down the delay in getting raw hides to the tanneries, improving the preservation techniques and, above all, educating and training people such as butchers, abattoir owners/managers and transporters would help reduce the spoilage of skins/hides.

There are around 3,000 tanneries in India (75% in the small-scale sector) and around 50MLD (million litres a day) liquid waste and 305 million kilograms of solid waste a day is generated. However, in the trade-off between development and the environment, employment and income comes at a heavy price – domestic as well as foreign. For example, for every ton of hide, it’s estimated that about 300kg of chemicals are used. Water consumption is also a cause for concern.

Pollution levels have forced the government and judiciary to take drastic measures, and just because tanneries and leather provides a livelihood to many, this cannot be an alibi for rampant and brazen pollution. There has to be a balanced trade-off.

Establishing protocols

Though the ‘Precautionary Principle’ and the ‘Polluter Pays Principle’ are designed to expose a lack of accountability for industry players, they are still flouted with impunity. The Precautionary Principle is a kind of self-certification (putting the ‘onus of proof’ on the actor or the developer/industrialist that they have acted in good faith and tried to make the product/process environmentally benign). The Polluter Pays Principle features of ‘Sustainable Development’ were part of the law by the operation of Article 21 and Articles 47, 48A and 51A(g) of the Indian Constitution. Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 (the Water Act), the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 (the Air Act) and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (the Environment Act) are the laws to be adhered to. These principles were part of the law by the operation of Article 21 and Articles 47, 48A and 51A(g) of the Indian Constitution. However, though the laws and acts are plenty, implementation and enforcement are a continuing challenge.

Due to recent judicial and activist awareness, there are efforts to manage the pollution. Although chromium-removing facilities existed in Jajmau and Unnao, near Kanpur, almost all tanneries discharged effluent to a central effluent treatment plant (CETP) without doing their bit in house.

The Ganges Basin in North India, for example, where prominent leather and tannery hubs are centred in Kanpur and Kolkata, and Palar and Kaveri of Tamil Nadu, are heavily polluted rivers due to unscrupulous tanneries, listed by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India under section 18(1)b of the Water and Air Acts. CPCB works through the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) to keep tabs on polluting industries and takes remedial actions if required.

CPCB asked 11 Ganges Basin state pollution control boards/pollution control committees to check if industries were discharging effluents directly into the River Ganges or its tributaries. For detection purpose, provisions were made to install real-time water-quality monitoring systems.

In India, there is a huge gap between intent and implementation. Due to demand for large quantities of water, the leather industry in India is located near river banks: the Ganges system in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and the Palar and Kaveri systems in Tamil Nadu. Tanneries are a major source of pollution due to the unregulated dumping of waste into river water that triggered judicial sanction in Kanpur and Tamil Nadu. The judicial interventions forced the closure of many tanneries. Even after the order of the supreme court on installation of ETP/CETPs, only 13 CETPs were set up in Tamil Nadu; however, many units bypass them altogether or dump effluents without treatment or insufficient treatment.

Chemical matters

In India, 80% of tanning is based on chrome. Pesticides, and chemical and organic materials, are the main sources of pollution from the process. Though some chromium and other chemicals are recovered in India, it is done sporadically by some tanners. The recovery is needed for economic as well as pollution-mitigation reasons; technically and economically, it is not possible to recover all the chromium in the effluent.

As far as CETPs are concerned, there are two prominent technologies: upflow anaerobic sludge blanket (UASB) process-based, and activated sludge process (ASP) based. Tare & Bose made a comparative assessment studying two such units in tannery clusters, UASB at Jajmau (Kanpur), and ASP at Unnao, Uttar Pradesh.

The results of this study are at variance with the conventional wisdom of the superiority of anaerobic processes for tannery wastewater treatment in tropical developing countries like India. Therefore, the ASP-based plant was superior in all respects. Similar comparisons on a pilot basis is recommended before deciding on either of the processes or making generalisations.

In terms of recommended manufacturing practices for better effluent treatment, the best option is to use fresh hides that consume fewer chemicals and salts, meaning fewer environmental pollutants in wastewater. However, such infrastructural and logistical facilities are often lacking in developing countries, particularly India, so salt is over-used, ultimately increasing the tannery load and pollution.

West Bengal Government has started an initiative – the setting up of a network of small and viable rural tanning centre for processing green hide and skins to eliminate salt usage. The salt-reduction methods include preserving hides by using relatively more environmentally benign antiseptics – boric acid and sodium sulphide. However, this reduces shelf life, Dodeca frames and desalting machines are better options.

Striving for sustainability

The 11th Five Year Plan to address the issues in tannery and leather goods sector is comprised of 50% grants from the central government, with the remaining funds coming from state government (15%) and from the industry (35%). As far as meeting environmental funding (capex) is concerned, opex would have to be borne by the industry. Out of six established CETP projects in Tamil Nadu, with total GOI assistance of just under $1.5 million approved under the sub scheme, five are on the verge of completion. GOI and UNIDO joined forces to mitigate tannery pollution by means of biomethanation in PPP (public private partnership) mode.

Further helping to raise the standards of leather production in India, Tata International, unlike the small tanners and leathergoods traders, operates on the value-added end of the spectrum. The Tata tannery, and leather garments and footwear manufacturing units, are ISO 9001:2008 and ISO 14001:2004-certified, and Tata’s performance leather unit is ISO/TS 16949:2009-certified as well. The solid waste from the leather factory is treated in a biomethanation plant at the Tata Dewas unit, which has a recycling capacity of 900t a year. This produces up to 200m3 of methane gas a day and recovers as much as 12MT of chromium a year for recycling. Instead of using municipal water for its plant, Tata uses recycled water, and the discharged and treated water contains 20 parts per million (ppm) of impurities, and is used for cultivation.

It processes tannery waste for reuse and recycling back into the leather production process using in-house patented technology. Tata Dewas Effluent Treatment Plant is based on reverse osmosis; water is fully recycled and used within the facility, ensuring a zero liquid-effluent discharge.

Tata Dewas and Chennai manufacturing facilities are one of the few units that have SA 8000 certification. And though the practices that merit awards still need to be scrutinised, Tata as a conglomerate and a corporate citizens, has more or less maintained an ethical image.

Future study and research

Though there are various technical measures available for pollution mitigation in tanneries and the leathergoods industry, obviously not all are commercially viable as there would be operation and maintenance, and labour issues. This is increased when the tannery/leathergoods industry’s hands are mostly unskilled or semi-skilled, and issues of adoption, adaptation, affordability and, most crucially, the willingness to adopt enforcement would dictate success rates.

Tanneries and the leathergoods industry are in the ‘red list’ as far as hazards are concerned. The industry, regulators/enforcers, industry bodies and ETP/CETP communities are anything but transparent.

It is recommended that further research should be conducted into the health hazards in the leather industry to gather data that can be translated into effective prevention programmes for adults and youths. Building on similar studies in Pakistan and other developing countries’ valuable insights, learning lessons and inputs for future policy-making can be obtained.

The state of affairs is questionable; barring a few reputed manufacturers, the vast majority of manufacturers are not making steps towards compliance. All players across the board have to take the blame – be it suppliers, tanners, manufacturers, pollution control agencies in private or public or the PPP domain, buyers (B2B or B2C) and enforcers/regulators.

Voluntary compliance is ideal, or else compliance may depend on regulation/enforcement, but there are other factors too. The attitudes of the firm and the costs of non-compliance – penalty in economic terms, loss of goodwill, consumer awareness, activism of consumer activists and judiciary – play important roles.

The challenge of making Indian tanneries and the leather industry sustainable is multifaceted; there are many stakeholders, many variables responsible for the pollution created. Tanners, the prima facie polluters, are responsible and should pay for the mess, agreeing and obeying to the Polluters Pay Principle; still, they are not the only players responsible. Unfortunately, enforcers and regulators have abetted and made the situation worse.

Pollution, community health and the environment are too important as a set of issues to be left with regulators, as time and again many have proved themselves as either incompetent or corrupt. Monitoring of tanneries is important, and more important is the monitoring of the regulators.

Though a lack of money and funding are offered as an excuse for not doing enough to reduce, control and mitigate pollution, this is not the only issue. Ignorance and the lack of a systematic, scientific approach are also responsible for the increase in pollution.

Bribery and corruption are also major drivers of non-compliance. Some organisations go beyond compliance, like Tata International for example. But until tanners and leathergoods-makers realise being at the lower end of the value spectrum isn’t good business practice, the motivation of being compliant and going green will remain absent. 