Tattered reputation

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Once a bustling city, Kanpur’s glory has now faded.  Neha Dixit traverses the convoluted pathways of neglect

Lost glory Crowds throng the main city square at night
Lost glory Crowds throng the main city square at night
Photos: Shailendra Pandey

AISA KOI saga nahin, jisko thaga nahi’ (We cheat everyone, even our own family) is the slogan of the very popular sweetshop Thaggu ke Laddoo in Kanpur. The line epitomises the panache — and the braggadocio — of the second-largest city in state of Uttar Pradesh. With a population of over 40 lakh, Kanpur is also the industrial capital of Uttar Pradesh, although looking at its shambolic state, it’s clear that industry is not top priority for the government in the country’s largest state.

Despite industrial decline, the city itself has had a very interesting history: situated on the banks of the river Ganga, Kanpur played an important part in the 1857 rebellion against the British. And the story of how Kanpur eventually got its name, say residents, resonates with its trajectory to its present form. It’s believed that the city derived its name from Kanhaiyapur, the town of Kanahiya or Lord Krishna. In time, Kanhiyapur became Kanhapur and subsequently, Cawnpore during British rule. Post independence, the Indian version, Kanpur, came into use.

Battlelane Meston road and its gun shops
Battlelane Meston road and its gun shops

That’s why, say its denizens, the city has narrow lanes that mimic the whorls and folds of skin and cartilage found on ear (kaan in Hindi). This is true even of the roads around its most historic landmarks, be it the famous gun market on Meston Road, the reputed Lal Imli Mills or the umpteen leather shops in every alley. It’s a simple way to describe how haphazardly this town has grown to the status of a large city: with no planning and little interest.

The old city is composed of numerous clusters, each named after a British official, emphasising the significance of colonial rule in the city. It is important to note that the British India Corporation (BIC) was headquartered here. And it was the British who led the development of industries like textiles, leather and ammunition in the city.

Rusty death The closed Elgin Mill
Rusty death The closed Elgin Mill

Though post independence, Kanpur’s fame as an industrial and educational hub increased with the establishment of an IIT, a branch of the RBI and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, major industries in the city started failing. The first cotton textile mill, the Elgin Mills, also famous for its towels, was started in 1862. Thereafter, five more mills were founded, including Lal Imli. Today, old glory has long faded.

VISIT ELGIN Mills today and you will see machinery straight out of a Dickens novel set in the industrial revolution. The run-down condition mill evokes nostalgia for the days when these factories were beehives of industrial production. Ram Janm Singh, an electrician who had worked for 30 years in the mill points out a poignant fact: “Production stopped in 1995. Thirty thousand people worked here, then. Today, only five are left.”

The case of Lal Imli, which was established in 1874, is not quite the same. Though still in running condition, only 1,300 employees are left where once 20,000 worked. Says Mushtaq Bhai, an accountant: “There is tough competition. Raw material is scarce. The government wants us to shut down.”

Hard Sell The old Shivali market
Hard Sell The old Shivali market

Part of a state with widespread gun culture, Kanpur clearly the gun capital of UP. There are approximately 8 lakh arms license holders in Uttar Pradesh and over 20,000 of them are in Kanpur’s Meston Road. There are approximately 130 gun shops in this city. However, the establishment of the Field Gun Factory among the dozen-odd ordnance factories set up by the ministry of defence in the early 1980s affected the market. Surinder Singh of Lord’s Gun House, whose shop has existed for 50 years, says, “Sales have reduced by 50 percent. But it’s a family tradition and we have decided to stick to it.”

The leather business is also drying up. Environmental activists have frequently attacked the city for its dangerously high pollution levels. Until the mid-1990s, tanneries — which did not have facilities to treat effluents — simply discharged their wastes into the (holy) Ganges. Kanpur has been a key exporter of leather. The government-owned Harness and Saddler factory was started in 1860 to supply the army with leather products, followed by Cooper Allen & Co in 1880. Since then, a number of indigenous companies have come up in a small area by the Ganges called Jajmau. Says Indra Mishra, regional director, Council for Leather Exports, “Out of 354 tanneries, 90 percent are small and cannot compete with the big daddies.”

Lal Imli mills, established in 1874, is still running. But only 1,300 are left where once 20,000 worked

Mirza Tanneries, known for its brand Red Tape (endorsed by Salman Khan), is one of the oldest. Adds RD Kaushik, GM, Mirza International: “Only the very large firms are investing in technology and are making profits.”

So really, all the industries that established Kanpur’s reputation as a commercial hub are struggling to survive. However, the city that once enjoyed the sobriquet of the ‘Manchester of India’, needs a great deal of state support to restore its tattered reputation as an industrial hub. Is it too much to ask for a huge population centre with a glorious heritage – and that too, one just 80 km away from the state capital, Lucknow?

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