“It’s slow poison, but we are forced to drink it because there is no other option,” says Ram Narain Shukla, a resident of Noraiakheda in the industrial city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh and its environs.

The hand pumps spewing yellowish and green water in Nairaikhera and other localities of Kanpur, where industries have been dumping their toxic waste for decades, provide living testimonies of the continuing tragedy of lakhs of residents of these localities, whose number has increased over the year.

In a real life story immortalised by Jula Robert’s film Erin Brockovich, a US company was made to pay 600 inhabitants of a US small town $ 333 million for making them drink water containing carcinogen Chromium.

As Kanpur awaits an Indian avatar of Brokovitch, lakhs of its inhabitants helplessly stare at slow death. According to a recent study by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), found that chromium concentration in water drawn from hand pumps and submersibles in Jajmau , Panki Thermal, Fazalganj and Rakhi Mandi-Baburia area was unacceptable.

Toxic constituents like chromium in these localities range up to 6 to 10 mg/l-- which is almost 200 times the maximum permissible level of .05 mg/l fixed by the Bureau of Indian Standards for drinking purposes, which it itself five times the maximum permissible level of .01 fixed by the World Health Organization.

“The water quality is so bad that it can’t be used for irrigation either, as burns the crops,” says Rakesh, a vegetable vendor in Jajmau.

Kanpur’s 350 and odd tanneries are the worst culprits. Concentrated in Jajmau area on the bank of river Ganga, they use chromium to make leather water resistant and strong. Though three STPs (Sewage Treatment Plants) are functional in the area, there is no mechanism for sludge disposal as the Common Chromium Recovery Plant (CCRP) is not working.

“More than 30,000 tonnes of Hexavalent Chromium is dumped near the\ Treatment Plant. The Municipal Corporation has engaged a private party for its disposal but only 4000 tonnes have been removed so far,” admits Radhe Shyam, Regional Officer, Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UUPCB).

Apart from Jajmau tanneries, chemical industries in factories in Nauria Khera , Rakhi Mandi and Baburia, producing sodium bi-chromate, basic chromate sulphate and sodium sulphide also use Chromite and Sulphuric acid as raw ingredients. Also, there are the textile mills which use chrome dyes.

Every month more than 2000 million ton of sludge is dumped on the open ground, where chromium turns into toxic Cr+6 and percolates down the lower aquifers. Analysing a hand pump water sample near the sludge disposing area in Rooma, the CGWB recorded 25 milligrams of hexavalent chromium (Cr+6) in one litre of water.

Medical research has established Cr+6 is the most toxic form of chromium, which is associated with cancer, gastrointestinal bleeding and severe damage to the kidney, liver and respiratory system.

Forced to drink this chromium contaminated, the residents are paying a heavy price in terms of health. A recent Municipal Corporation report confirms that one out of every three residents was infected by leprosy while others suffered from liver failure, kidney damage and skin diseases.