• August 6, 2014

Industry on the Banks: Deep Inside Kanpur’s Tanneries

Pete McBride

One river, 18,000 feet, 1,500 miles. In the fall of 2013, photographer and videographer Pete McBride, along with professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, followed the Ganges River from snow to sea. All this week, Proof takes you on their 45-day journey—by foot, boat, bike, aircraft, rickshaw, bus, train, and even elephant—as they track every mile of this sacred river.

September 29-October 6, 2013

Picture of the Ganges flowing through the foothills of the Himalaya
The Ganges descends through the foothills of the Himalaya. An evening fog/smog drifts in from the plains to the south.

As we walk inside, I can taste metal in my gums. It feels like crossing a doorway from an air conditioned room into a desert but instead of entering a wall of heat, I’m met with a vapor cloud of chemicals—hot, sticky, metal-tasting chemicals. Ammonia I recognize, then something else. I can’t identify it. Before the thought has a chance to linger, all of my senses are overwhelmed. Burning nostrils, watering eyes, raw throat. I look back at our crew and see everyone waging their own battles—blinking eyes, covering mouths. Everyone fights the urge to turn around. The cool, misty air of the Himalayan foothills, some three hundred miles upstream, is already a distant dream.

Quickly I feel queasy, unstable. I spent the last 36 hours in bed fighting Delhi belly—India’s version of Montezuma’s revenge. I am pretending I am getting better. Videographer Ashley Mosher is fighting the same. She looks white with a tinge of green. And Madhav, our translator, is visibly horrified. He is a strict vegetarian—and perhaps one of the few to ever step foot inside a leather tannery in Kanpur, India.

Picture of workers treating buffalo hides inside a tannery in Kanpur, India
Inside a leather tannery in Kanpur, workers treat buffalo hides with lye and chromium to harden the leather. India produces some 8 percent of the world’s leather, much of it for shoes and belts. Since Hindus are vegetarians by religious code, tannery workers are non-Hindus.

As we move further into the green glow of this cavernous factory, I begin to hear the slosh of something slapping liquid. We turn a corner and see sinewy workers, their bodies beaded in sweat and their calves wrapped in makeshift plastic socks. Thick, orange rubber gloves protect their hands. They rhythmically grab buffalo hides with long metal hooks. Four two-man teams work silently in perfect unison, never speaking. Some teams hook hides into concrete tubs full of silvery, gray liquid. Others pull the hides from one bath to the next. Whack, slap, slosh, whack, slap, slosh. Everyone moves in perfect timing, efficiently. Years of repetition.

Picture of workers inside a tannery in Kanpur, India
Regulations to reduce pollution at tanneries have been in place since 1986. Tanneries recycle chemicals like chromium. Many of the recycling plants rely on electricity, which is unreliable in Kanpur. Blackouts shut water systems down, leaving untreated water to flow back into the Ganges

Despite my now burning, watering eyes and swelling nausea, I’m right where I want to be—deep inside one of the most controversial industries on the banks of the Ganges. It took us four weeks of travelling the Ganges downstream to get here and two days of negotiations to gain access.

Picture of a tannery worker washing off after a day of work in Kanpur, India
A worker, sitting on a mound of caked chromium, attempts to wash after a day at work.

Leather textiles are part of Kanpur’s DNA. It is also sensitive. During British rule, this Indian city evolved on the banks of the Ganges because textile companies could easily transport their goods to market from here. It made economic sense. In 2009, India was producing 8 percent of the world’s leather supply—so leather remains an economic engine. Much of it goes to shoes. I asked one worker if my lightweight hiking boots are Kanpur leather. He smiles, wobbles his head, and says, “Yes, very likely.”

Picture of a map of the Ganges River
  Maggie Smith, NG Staff

Despite their economic success, tanneries have been severely criticized for polluting water supplies—specifically the Ganges—with heavy metals like chromium, a hardening agent in leather production.

Improperly handled, chromium quite simply is nasty business. It is linked to causing lung cancer, liver failure, kidney damage, and premature dementia. As I look at the workers in front of me sloshing and sweating, shirtless, I can’t but wonder about their health.

There are approximately 400 operational tanneries in Kanpur today. That is after some 70 were shuttered due to pollution concerns. The remaining ones are required to recycle all their water. We visit two facilities, one large and one small, and both have recycling systems, but both require electricity to run their pumps. And electricity production is notoriously unreliable in northern India. I notice power outages occurring six to eight times a day. And when it does, milky, silvery-grayish water spills down overflow ditches in the streets, most likely headed to the river.

Picture of children playing in a field of leather scraps in Kanpur, India
On the banks of the Ganges, children play in a field of leather scraps, many of them soaked in chromium and lye.

Beginning at the source of the Ganges, we have taken water samples every few hundred miles at key locations. Kanpur is one of them. The samples were later tested for 21 heavy metals at a registered drinking water facility in Denver, Colorado. Not surprisingly, our Kanpur sample shows a steep spike at chromium. It is one of the highest heavy metal samples we record.

Our data isn’t alone. In 2013 a study in the news showed that tanneries were pumping out 30 crore liters (roughly 79 million gallons) of contaminated water into the Ganges a day but the city’s treatment facility could handle only 17 crore liters (about 45 million gallons) per day.

Picture of people doing laundry in the Ganges River flowing past Kanpur
As the Ganges stretches across the Gangetic plain south of the Himalaya, it winds past the Ganga Barrage, a giant flood control dam, where workers do laundry in the river. Few in Kanpur bathe or swim in the Ganges, fearful of pollution.

Later in the afternoon teammate Jake and I photograph kids playing among chromium-laden leather scraps on the banks of the Ganges. My eyes still burn and my nausea lingers. It is a joyous scene full of laughter and energy. The sun is setting and I look out at the lazy, chai-colored flow of the Ganges. Surprisingly, no one is arriving for evening aarti prayer like we have seen consistently upstream throughout the terraced farmlands of the Himalaya foothills. I assume it is because I am in a predominantly Muslim section of the city and the Ganges isn’t considered as spiritually significant. But I witness few Hindus visiting the river anywhere in Kanpur, just one family doing laundry and some teenagers practicing break dancing. After learning a few Indian moves, the breakers tell me they are Hindu and that they do pray to Ganga but “never swim or bathe. It is too dirty.”

Next: The Pyres of Varanasi: Breaking the Cycle of Death and Rebirth

The Ganges River expedition was made possible with funding from Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council, Ambuja Cement India, and Hach Hyrdolab. The full expedition team includes photographer and videographer Pete McBride, videographers and professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, and second camera Ashley Mosher.

There are 13 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Dishant Dedhia
    November 2, 2015

    Dear Mr. Peter McBride,

    My name is Dishant Dedhia. I am currently in grade 10 at Oberoi International School in Mumbai, India. I am working on an Environmental Studies project which includes leather factories (tanneries) and the waste they produce. This project will eventually be sent to CIE (Cambridge International Examinations) to be checked. I found an article which was on your website on this same topic (Article link – http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/06/industry-on-the-banks-deep-inside-kanpurs-tanneries/ ). It was on how the tanneries in Kanpur affect the Ganges River. In the article you have mentioned that you have been to tanneries to see the process of leather making. Due to living in Mumbai I cannot travel to Kanpur to see the factories by myself. I was wondering if you would allow me to interview you and your team and get to know your personal experience a little more in detail. I would appreciate if you and your team could give some of your time to help me and the interview would become my primary data. I hope for a positive response from your side.

    Dishant Dedhia
    Grade 10
    Oberoi International School

  2. Shannon Kreutzer
    October 27, 2015

    Very moving and informative. I watched this as part of the entire documentary about the Ganges and it moved me to modify my senior research topic from the health of the Ganges to the ecological impacts of leather tanning in India. The effects are detrimental to much more than humans.

  3. ryanalley
    September 21, 2014

    I belong to India and to the region and to the trade…I am a mute watcher…!!
    How tremendous & courageous task done by team NG I am imagine this. Travelling in Indian that too along Ganges can give you worse experiences and nightmares. Banks of Ganges are dumping ground and rivers itself opening for sewage in India. River Ganges ‘sacred’ is a spelling mistake its ‘scared’ scared to death.
    Tannery owners are proud to see the wealth they created for themselves, rest all is ignored. Tannery workers are happy to get their wages in hand each day so that they can live out that day, tomorrow never comes there. Decisions need to be made on the spot, take it or leave it. Muslims works in tanneries as Hindus do not want to do that because of religious issues but the wages are very poor at tanneries for day workers. However Hindus are associated with leather industries outside tanneries like working for factories that produce leather products, shoes, jackets, upholsteries etc.
    It is sad to see that we have crated wealth at the cost of a river, along the banks of which our whole civilization has taken birth and we like a monster children sucking blood out of our mother and she is like a mother still giving…till her last breath !

  4. Bas van der Linden
    September 19, 2014

    Pretty interesting read. I wasn’t aware that that the leather industry was so polluting as well. The conditions that these people work in would never be accepted at all in any western country, but as long as the western countries want their products as cheap as possible and these people have no other future … there’s not much there is going to change unfortunately 🙁

  5. Ras Sha
    September 19, 2014

    The whole ting is such a quandry……hobson’s choice no? Or btwn the devil & the deep blue
    sea 🙁

  6. lucianolucci.com
    September 19, 2014

    we need to protect the environment. too much pollution from these companies!

    August 21, 2014

    @Mikkel – It’s true that Hindus abstain from working in the tanneries because of non-distinction of the underlying theology about sacred cows and buffaloes. However, it matters very less as to who actually does the dirty work. If the belief is strong enough for the Hindus, then neither would there be Hindu Tannery owners. But that’s not so.

    @erbPIX – I do second your observation. Not only are human beings capable of sinning, we are also capable of justifying our sins (and I am not saying that working or owning a tannery is / isn’t one of them).

  8. Hari
    August 17, 2014

    “the city’s (Kanpur) treatment facility could handle only 17 crore liters (about 45 million gallons) per day.” is located approximately 10-12 KM upstream from Jajmau where tanneries are located.
    The discharge at tanneries have no impact on water intake at Kanpur water treatment plant.

  9. Mikkel
    August 12, 2014

    erbPIX, to my knowledge, the buffalo is not considered sacred, only the cows – Not the same thing.

    jayme, the electrical infrastructure in India is a nightmare. Every city street is laced with hundreds, thousands of wires, emanating randomly from masts, power stations, street lights and transformers. It’s hard to believe until you see it. I assume it due to people tapping into the electrical system, in order to bypass the meters and avoid paying for the electricity. Thus it is a matter of changing the culture of not paying, and also empowering people to actually be ABLE to pay. Wages are incredibly low in India.

    • erbPIX™
      August 12, 2014

      You may be correct, but if so, then, again, that would be a rationalization, because the difference between a cow and a buffalo should be without distinction based on the underlying theology.

  10. erbPIX™
    August 8, 2014

    This is hypocrisy if the owners of the tannery are Hindus that hire non-Hindus to do the dirty work, believing it will absolve them of guilt. Where does it all start for the ‘sacred’ buffalo? Unless those who profit wait around for the animals to die of naturally, which I seriously doubt, somebody has to put them down, gut them, skin them, etc. Is this totally a non-Hindu operation? I doubt that too. Follow the money, like anywhere else. One thing unique about us humans is our ability to rationalize endlessly.

  11. Lawrence Torres
    August 8, 2014

    Thats gross. Its very bad for the workers of the factory and for the people who are using the Ganges river. Its really a bad pollution on a water system of a billion people.

  12. jayme
    August 7, 2014

    if the country really wants to make those water conditions better they need to install solar or wind power for that area. it will keep the power on so the overflows will be less.

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