PUCL Bulletin, August 1999

Whether Leather or Human Rights
- By D. Benedict Thyagarajan

I had to go to Karugambathur village, Vellore District of Tamil Nadu last October to attend a funeral. After the funeral, around 7 p.m., when I was about to leave the village, an obnoxious stench engulfed the whole atmosphere! I was taken unaware and was unable to breathe. I thought that some Gas Tanker might have over-turned on the close by National highway or may be there was a similar to that of the Bhopal a few years ago. Extremely alarmed. I asked the villagers whether they were also experiencing it. They laughed at me and said "what you are experiencing today is not even one percent of what we have been doing for more than five decades…. This is our daily experience… the stench in the air is due to that Tannery…. Now they are opening and mixing the tannic acid and chemicals inside the tannery… . This stench will continue through out the night… . We have become habituated this..".

I was shell-shocked to hear this explanation from those innocent villagers. I decided to stay back to study the situation.

Though no records are available, I found out that a stretch of Tanneries have been built in the North Arcot District starting from Ambun to Wallejah and adjoining villages close the Chennai - Bangalore National Highway. All these Tanneries were built closer to 'cheris', i.e., the part of the village where the Harijans live. This is the case all over the Tamil Nadu. None of the Tanneries were built close to the 'Goru', i.e., the portion of the village where the Caste Hindus live. I gathered information about more than hundred villagers situated beside the Chennai - Bangalore Highway. Yet another fact was that most of the Tannery owners were outsiders from the North Arcot District, some of them were Chettiars from the extreme southern districts of Tamil Nadu, and some Muslims, whose nativity was not knows!

Nobody knows whether these were established with government permission, or whether permission was required to be taken from some authority. The health of several thousand persons is adversely affected and several thousand acres of fertile agricultural land is involved. The result is shocking, a large number of people are affected by mysterious diseases and many have already met pre-mature death; several thousand acres of fertile paddy fields have become totally unfit for any cultivation are resemble sulphur fields. Earth has assumed a pale yellow hue; ground water, once used for drinking and cultivation, has turned tannic and even the cattle are not drinking this water in all these villages.

I began my inquiry with the Ex-Tannery workers, many of them in their late seventies and in bedridden condition with serious diseases. As per their memory all these Tanneries are in operation for more than six decades. They do not know which Government or who gave the permission to start these Tanneries close the 'Cheris' of the Harijans. In the beginning, and until the late 1970s, the Tanneries used to buy the Hides and the whole tanning process was done using the Tannin, i.e., substances extracted from three barks. The whole tanning process was done manually bare hand and bare foot workers. They never had heard about rubber gloves or rubber boots. There were tanks inside the Tanneries wherein the hides, the raw animals skins, used to be soaked and left for a few days till it became easier to pluck the hair from them. Then, cleaning, drying, and polishing of the skins to make them into leather, everything manually.

During this process plenty of water mixed with tannin was used and there was neither the sewerage or pipelines to dispose the toxic effluent safe distance away from the human habitation and precious Agricultural land. What they did was a very simple method to dispose this poisonous water undetected by the Government machinery, environmental activists, and the human rights activists. The Tanners had kept at least one or two acres of land behind their Tanneries. They dug out three to four feet of the soil from these lands to convert them as ponds without effluent, i.e., the toxic water in these pond like areas for automatic evaporation and underground seepage. This dark red coloured effluent stored behind the Tanneries close to the Harijans dwellings used to emit a most unbearable stench since it contained the rotten fluids of the animal skins and the tannin mixture. With the blowing wind. This had been happening day and night, not for months and years, but for more than six decades. And, during the monsoon, this poisonous effluent used overflow the ponds reach the dwelling areas as well as the agricultural fields. As a result of this environmental damage caused for many decades, now all these, more than hundred villages look like sulphur fields and the extent of underground seepage of the effluent cannot be ascertained unless a through chemical analysis of the soil and the ground source water was done scientifically.

The next stage was the advent of Machines and Chemical for tanning during the 1980s which had totally damaged the arable lands and the ground water sources, beyond may remedy. The nature's infrastructure meant for many millenniums of agricultural yields, several thousand areas of arable lands have become worse than the desert lands. And the Ground Sources Water has become unfit for human and cattle consumption. This is one of the Environmental facts. The damage to human health is worse than that by the Bhopal gas tragedy.!!?

In the beginning when Tannin, i.e., substances extracted from the tree barks were used for tanning and when the Tannery workers worked with bare hands and bare foot, their hands and feet imprinted with permanent dark reddish colour. These were the physical symptoms to recognise a Tannery worker.! Gradually these symptoms have appeared in the villagers living close to the Tanneries since the sub-soil and the drinking water way polluted. Till early 1980s there a large number of pre-mature deaths and high infant mortality due to major diseases, viz. T B, Asthma, Bronchitis, Cancer, Anaemia, Jaundice, Stomach Cancer and Cardio Vascular disorders. The people of this region could not relate these diseases to the polluted air, contaminated water, and the chemicals infected ground on which they walled and lived: all due to their illiteracy and poverty. No one connected the killer Tanneries as the main culprit for the heavy dale of human life. Even now the people living in this belt from Ambur to Wallajah and adjoining villages are suffering from all these diseases. In addition to these diseases, now diabetes has raised its head. The link has to the probed. Most of these people are living below the poverty line; hard workers and hardly having enough to, eat but becoming diabetic is a mystery.

The only affordable medical care for all these people is the Government Civil Hospital at Vellore; This hospital at best can treat them by seeing the symptoms and preliminary laboratory tests and cannot go beyond it to trace out the Tanneries as the main culprit for all these diseases. Some of the villages on the National High way are flooded with private medical practitioners, some of them even running mini-hospitals with laboratory facilities. None of them has visiting facilities in case of any emergency, all they do is to tell the family to bring the dying bedridden patient to the clinic, which is totally impractical. Most of the villages do not have doctors who can visit their homes to attend to the seriously ill patients. Such patients are left to die.

My next task was to visit some villages to meet the people and to know from their own mouth what could help them out from these pathetic conditions pervading for decades. The neglect, injustice, slow poisoning was nothing pass then mass killing. Some of those whom I met worse ex-Tannery workers, small land owners, unemployed youths/graduates, village elders and ex servicemen, and senior JCO,.

I met the them in groups. Most of them are suffering from various serious illnesses.

As long as the Tannery owners needed the unskilled manual workers to run their Tanneries, they made use of the cheep labour force from the scheduled castes. Now, most of these Tanneries are no more tanning and have been converted into Shoe Companies, mainly doing export business. As a result, most of the unskilled workers of the scheduled caste origin have been, unceremoniously, ejected out and new hands have been recruitments from nearby towns and cities. The legitimate right of the former workers to gave alternative jobs to their children was also ignored. They are left with unemployment coupled with incurable diseases.

Next I met the small land owners. These people were engaged in cultivation of their lands for many generations. In fact, they were the worshippers of their land and their profession. As per the land records, they were cultivating paddy and sugarcane until mid 1980s and thereafter disaster slowly spread to their lands, due to the seepage of the Tannery effluent. All their agricultural land, several thousand acres in all turned worse than the desert lands and totally unfit for any further cultivation. Their plea is, whether there is any possibility to treat their land and ground water sources to rid them of the chemicals using modern science and technology. They too are pleading with the Tannery owners- now known as shoo company owners - to compensate their loss by giving jobs to their children to atleast one from each family. They are in possession of land their status is that of landless labourers.

When I met some of the unemployed youths/graduates, they all flared up. Their anger has its own reasons. Most of them are waiting for the interview calls from the Employment Exchange and despite their scheduled caste status many of them have not received even a single call from the Employment Exchange for upto five years now. The target of their anger are the political leaders and the leaders form their own community. Who touches the political leaders of Tamil Nadu, even if they have illegally accumulated wealth sufficient to take care of one hundred generations. But what is our fate? Why did not the leaders of the Republican Party of India and the BSP visit our villages to know our sufferings and to take up our plight with "State and the Central Government", they exploded.

Last of all I met an ex-serviceman- a senior JCO. He was more systematic, - analytical and practical in his views at the same time desired to remain anonymous for some personal reasons. I am reproducing his communist as they were expressed. "It is no use pinning the responsibility on anyone…Past is past… Now the best thing could be to find out meaningful ways to mitigate the problems of the people… There are three major problems to be resolved…. The first and the foremost is… the Health Problem generated by the Tanneries. Many thousand have perished due to Air, Water and Soil borne diseases and many are still suffering from major diseases relating to Chest, Heart, Blood and Stomach. There is no visible solution at hand to check the health problems and the large scale premature deaths. At least three to four Hospitals with Specialists and equipped with modern medical facilities need to be opened in the stretch starting from Ambur to Wallajah at selected nodal points.

The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu should take the initiative in this regard.

The Tannery owners of the past and the present cannot be allowed to go scot-free… . Funds need to be raised for construction of these Hospitals and the major chunk should be raised from these Tanners of the past and the Tanners turned Shoe company owners of the present… . Apart from this, both the State and Central Governments should contribute to this Fund since they too also are responsible for allowing the Tanneries to operate in his manner.

Since the construction of these Hospitals way take a minimum of two years… the services of the non governmental organisational like the Christian Medical College Hospital, Vellore can be sought to meet immediate requirement. The erstwhile Seudder Memorial Hospital, now, known as the Christian Medical College Hospital, was originally established to meet the medical care of the rural poor free of cost. To respect the past tradition of the Hospital.. the CMC Hospital can either volunteer to take up this humanitarian task or at come nominal charges. They should run mobile dispensaries with specialist Doctors… first to screen all the patients of this region to categories various diseases and to use their pathological Laboratory and all available Technical know how to carry out the necessary Tests on the patients. This would become a genuine Base to ascertain the number of patients and various diseases to be dealt with in future.

The next important problem is the large unemployment in these villages. Government can evolve a scheme for the Shoe Companies to offer at least one job to a person from each of the affected families. When these Tanneries were using the conventional methods for tanning… they deployed the people of Scheduled Caste origin and once they became modernised and turned into shoe companies… all these people were ejected out, robbed of their health and the small land owners robbed of the partiality of their lands. This is outrageous and outright violation of the Human Rights or the voiceless downtrodden people.

"The Tamil Nadu government can also take initiative for a special recruitment drive for the unemployed youth of this region.

"Apart from these, the government should order the District collector of Vellore to send Land Surveyors to ascertain the quantum of Agricultural lands turned unfit for cultivation in this region. Also, to deploy the Governmental machinery to test soil and ground water sources to ascertain to what extent they were polluted and whether these can be treated to make them arable once again and the ground water potable and usable for cultivation. The Central Government can also be approached for expert help.

If the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the District Collector of Vellore, and the Christian Medical College Hospital take initiative in this direction….. it would be an ideal and good starts for a mammoth task ahead…."

Do not look at the people of this region as Harijans or Scheduled Caste people but as human beings, the poorest of the poor. The voiceless people of the region are resigned but hopeful in the traditional Indian way. Waiting for meting to happen.

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