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Industry on the Banks: Deep Inside Kanpur’s Tanneries

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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  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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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