India: The Toxic Price of Leather


Huge amounts of waste water are channeled from tanneries onto nearby farmland on the outskirts of Kanpur. Laced with highly toxic and acidic chemicals, foam is created when it passes through a small sluice gate, en route to being discharged onto local farmland. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A tannery worker throws treated leather hides into a pile after coming out of a dyeing container. Workers often labor with little to no protection, even though the water used to treat the hides contains dangerous toxins and chemicals. The waste water runs into local sewers, which enter the nearby Ganges River. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A tannery worker stands barefoot in an area used for collecting dyes and effluent from the leather tanning industry. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A child worker trims pieces of leather outside of a tannery in the Jajmau area of Kanpur. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A young girl jumps over piles of drying animal hides that have just been treated with a mix of chemicals and dyes. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Two young men work with leather in a tannery workshop in the Jajmau area of Kanpur. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Rakesh, 16, strokes a piece of leather in the factory where he works in Kanpur. He suddenly lost the sight in his left eye as a child and is one of many people in the area suffering from developmental health issues. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Workers sort through piles of shoes in a factory in the Jajmau area of Kanpur. Most of the leather products produced in Kanpur are destined for markets in the West. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A Reebok export surplus store in the Jajmau area of Kanpur. Leather from the nearby tanneries is used for making a variety of leather products including shoes, bags and clothes. Kanpur has now become the country's leading leather exporter. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A child rolls a drum full of chemicals down the street, in the Jajmau area of Kanpur. Child labor is used in many stages of the leather production process. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Waste water from a nearby tannery is released directly into local sewers. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Foamy waste water from tanneries makes its way into the local farmland. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A farmer stands on his land, next to a collection of foam which is laced with highly toxic and acidic chemicals. This foam is created as the water is discharged onto local fields. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Chamilal, 55, stands outside his farmhouse in a small village near the city of Kanpur. He is one of many local farmers who suffer from serious skin conditions, believed to have been brought about by contact with toxic waste water from local tanneries. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A small pool of red water sits in a footprint near a waste water channel in Kanpur. The water is laced with toxic chemicals and is highly acidic, giving it its distinct color. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A child worker pulls discarded leather trimmings discarded from local tanneries. The waste contains toxic chemicals produced in the tanning process. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A man works in the chromium fields of Kanpur, an area that receives waste from nearby tannery factories. The soil is now heavily contaminated and will be unusable for any other purpose for decades. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A young boy walks among discarded leather trimmings in a dumping ground on the banks of the Ganges River in Kanpur. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A fisherman pushes his boat along the Ganges River. Waste water in the foreground from nearby tanneries has contributed to the severe degradation of local water resources near the city of Kanpur. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Smoke billows from a chimney on the premises of a leathery tannery factory. Severe air and water pollution now affect the city and are causing health problems for residents and the degradation of the local Ganges River ecology. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A family relaxes on top of a pile of leather trimmings at a dumpsite on the outskirts of the city of Kanpur. The trimmings are discarded from the nearby tannery factories, burned, dried and then re-used as fertilizer and chicken feed. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A man sits near a vat used for burning leather trimmings on the outskirts of the town of Kanpur. The leather is burned, dried and then used as fertilizer and chicken feed. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Yakub Akhmed Khan, 27, looks at an x-ray of his lungs in his village near the city of Kanpur. He suffers from tuberculosis, brought on by his time working as a painter in local tanneries. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Saida, a tannery worker, in her home in the Indian city of Kanpur. She is one of many workers and locals who suffer from serious skin conditions, believed to have been brought about by having contact with toxic waste water from local tanneries. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Waste water from local tanneries accumulates in a small drainage channel. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A dog lies next to a severely polluted water channel. The water comes from nearby tanneries which release untreated waste water directly into channels that run through local communities. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


Tannery waste water, mixed with domestic trash, is discharged directly into the Ganges River, India's holiest of waterways. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A man walks along the banks of the Ganges River near the city of Kanpur. Black leather trimmings line the banks as they dry and are prepared for being turned into fertilizer and chicken feed. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.


A leather tannery churns out more air pollution that causes problems for both the environment and residents' health. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

"The bubbles which you see are contaminated with chromium, and it is very poisonous."

Standing next to a field of wilted crops near his small village of Payundee, Sonalal Yadav carefully hops over a drainage canal, which is overflowing with white foam.

An acrid stench fills the air as the water below is churned up and funneled through the small channels onto nearby farmland. On its way, vegetation that hangs in the water is beginning to turn a dark brown color, and some plants are completely black.

"This water that you see comes from the tanneries. It goes to the treatment plant and then from the canal, it comes to the fields," explained Yadev, who is president of the area's local farmers community. "We were called the 'Kings of Roses.' Now, they have totally vanished. Here vegetables have also gone very bad. The vegetables have all become poisonous."

These tainted fields lie on the outskirts of Kanpur, a small city of some 2.5 million inhabitants, residing on the banks of India's holiest river, the Ganges. Along these banks, an ecological and health crisis has slowly developed, now engulfing a city that has gained notoriety in recent decades for the rise of its most successful export, leather.

Kanpur is home to more than 300 tanneries, which treat various animals hides and skins, manufacturing them into a wide array of leather products including shoes, clothes, belts and bags.

The city's industry has become so successful that it has recently risen to become the country's leading leather exporter, with more than 90 percent of its products destined for markets in Europe and the United States.

Many of the city's tanneries, small, medium and large-scale, are located in the small area of Jajmau, a predominantly Muslim area just a few kilometers east of the city center.

The neighborhood teems with life, and tannery workers and residents mingle in the streets. Just before sunset seems to be the busiest time, with residents crossing the narrow dusty streets, dodging trucks filled with hides and leather products.

Saida, one of the tannery workers, lives on the edge of Jajmau, near the Ganges River, which runs just meters away from her door. From her small, one-room home, she peeks out from behind a colorful curtain at her door, temporarily revealing a glimpse of her face, a dappled mix of brown and white skin.

"Most of the tannery water is dumped, and it has very strong chemicals," Saida explained. "That is the water that we drink. Because it is such a bad environment, this is why all the diseases are here."

She is one of many workers and locals who suffer from a serious skin condition that has turned her brown skin white. It's a condition that is believed to have been brought about by having contact with the toxic waste water from local tanneries.

She is not alone in her affliction. In her small community, there are people with similar skin conditions, former workers suffering from tuberculosis, residents suffering from blindness, gastrointestinal issues and children born with severe mental and physical disabilities.

In 2008, a study by scientists at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research found that tannery workers had double the risk of morbidity when compared to control groups. The main findings suggested that increased exposure to leather dust, which contains high levels of chromium, was responsible for the significantly higher rates of morbidity. Carcinogenic compounds and a variety of highly toxic chemicals were found in the tanning process.

Separate studies have also revealed high levels of chromium in local soil and water, which is evidence that this dangerous chemical — in its industrial form — enters and accumulates in the food chain.

"We did a study with the Blacksmith Institute, in collaboration with the central pollution control board. We found that the groundwater was very severely contaminated from Chromium VI," said Satish Sinha, associate director at the Delhi-based NGO, Toxics Link.

"It is a sign that tells us that the groundwater contamination is there because of the Chromium VI, and people are drinking that water, which is very, very serious," Sinha explained. "Chromium can be highly toxic to humans."

As the tanneries' chimneys belch out dark smoke into the air above Jajmau, small drainage channels line the streets, carrying liquids of myriad colors, from light blue to jet black, untreated effluent which has escaped from the tanneries. Laced with highly toxic chemicals, it passes through many communities on its way to the Ganges River just a little further downstream.

Following the official waste water channels out of town and away from the tanneries, it makes its way to a common effluent treatment plant on the outskirts of the city. Designed to process the highly toxic water, it receives upwards of 40 million liters per day. Its failings have been a source of despair for locals, and it's estimated that only 20 percent of the water received from tanneries is properly treated.

"The common effluent treatment plant doesn't work and doesn't function for various reasons," said Toxics Link's Sinha. "Either the plant is down or [there's] a sudden malfunction, there is no electricity, or it is running below capacity. So there are multiple reasons why a plant doesn't work perfectly, and so all the water is being discharged into the agricultural land, and all the farmers are using this for agricultural purposes."

Back in the fields, Yadav was exasperated. "They said that this water would be treated in such a way that you would find big fish surviving in it," he said. "But now you can see the bubbles in this water. Even the grass vanishes!"

For many of Yadav's fellow villagers, they have no choice but to use the water and allow it to enter their fields. The environmental and health effects have been nothing short of catastrophic for these helpless villagers, who have to wade through the water to irrigate their fields and watch helplessly as the toxins accumulate in their fields, soil and ultimately their bodies.

"What can I say about the health effects? We are getting ill. Sometimes we have bad legs and skin rashes. That is a problem with the water. Always feeling ill. There are also many diseases," explained Shivlal Nishad, a fellow farmer who stares out across his field which is being irrigated with foam-laced water. "What should I say about the crops? You see the small plants. If the water is full, the small plants don't survive. They don't get bigger. Day by day, they vanish."

Just a few hundred meters away from Nishad's field, black smoke emerges above the tree-line. It emanates from the nearby chromium waste fields, which process much of the tannery waste. Burning discarded leather trimmings produces highly poisonous smoke that filters through the air, wafting towards his village. The trimmings, once dried, are ultimately used for fertilizer and even chicken feed. Still laced with chromium and other chemicals from the tanning process, this smoke acts as another vector by which toxins are entering the food chain.

"What to say? Why they are not helping? Nobody is helping us. Not the government, not even the politicians. So many politicians but nobody is listening," laments Nishad, as he wades deeper into the water which has now engulfed his field.

Excess water that escapes the fields runs downhill and eventually finds its way into the most important waterway that connects both the urban and rural communities, the Ganges. Even India's holiest river is not immune to the severe levels of pollution in the city.

"We are making the Ganges water black," said Arun Puree Chaitnya, or Baba Gee, as he is known to his devout followers at his ashram on the banks of the Ganges River. "In Jajmau, Kanpur, due to the leather industry, the Ganga is mostly polluted. From the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the most damaged part of the Ganges water is in Kanpur. My heart cries when I see the pollution, but the problem is that the government sitting in power doesn't want to do anything."

Baba Gee, a Hindu holy man, has been involved in environmental awareness campaigns since his teenage years, encouraging local people to come together to protect the country's most important waterway. It's a message that is proving difficult to get through to those in higher levels, however.

"We have said to the government, 'Please seriously work for the benefit of the Ganges,'" he said. "The government has many schemes, but on the ground level, it is fruitless."

In Delhi, Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Center for Science and Environment, believes one of the main problems lies with the government's tradeoff between employment and the environment. "The Indian government and the supreme court of India have also looked at the issue of Kanpur tanneries," he said. "Have they improved in Kanpur? A little bit, in 20 years. Now you have a few big companies that are doing better than they were doing before, but the major problem of tannery pollution comes from small and medium-scale industries."

The jobs provided by these businesses make it difficult to regulate them, Bhushan said. "These are small to medium-scale companies generating a lot of employment, [with] a lot of political support for them and it has been difficult to close down these industries," he explained. "Some of them even operate illegally in those areas. So it has been a difficult issue for India. Nevertheless, I think it's high time: We will now have to take concrete actions — either we need to upgrade those industries now, put in money from the central purse and upgrade those industries, or ask them to shut down."

With increasing demand from the West and rising affluence in the East, the leather industry shows little sign of slowing down. The future of Kanpur's most vulnerable residents and the state of the local Ganges ecology seems perilous.

What will happen if nothing changes in Kanpur? "I think it will be asking for disaster. The time bomb is ticking," Sinha said. "The moment we get a sense of the data, then we will realize it is too late. The cost of it is going to be very, very expensive. It's going to be very costly for the state and for the health concerns that people have. It is going to be phenomenal. And I don't think you can put the clock back after that."