“A Prayer for the Ganges” by Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine
Hammer, J. “A Prayer for the Ganges.” Smithsonian Magazine. November, 2007. pp. 75-82.
A Prayer for the Ganges
By Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine
A blue stream spews from beneath brick factory buildings in Kanpur, India. The dark ribbon curls down a dirt embankment and flows into the Ganges River. “That’s toxic runoff,” says Rakesh Jaiswal, a 48-year-old environmental activist, as he leads me along the refuse-strewn riverbank in the vise-like heat of a spring afternoon. We’re walking through the tannery district, established along the Ganges during British colonial rule and now Kanpur’s economic mainstay as well as its major polluter.
I had expected to find a less-than-pristine stretch of river in this grimy metropolis of four million people, but I’m not prepared for the sights and smells that greet me. Jaiswal stares grimly at the runoff—it’s laden with chromium sulfate, used as a leather preservative and associated with cancer of the respiratory tract, skin ulcers and renal failure. Arsenic, cadmium, mercury, sulfuric acid, chemical dyes and heavy metals can also be found in this witches’ brew. Though Kanpur’s tanneries have been required since 1994 to do preliminary cleanup before channeling wastewater into a government-run treatment plant, many ignore the costly regulation. And whenever the electricity fails or the government’s waste conveyance system breaks down, even tanneries that abide by the law find that their untreated wastewater backs up and spills into the river.