Toxic, Deadly Tanneries

In the wee hours of the morning on January 31, in the worst tannery disaster in the industry's history in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a deluge of toxic sludge from a storage tank killed nine sleeping workers and a watchman. The Tamil Nadu Farmers' Association said the tank explosion was due to poor construction and they are demanding 10 lakh rupees (US$16,200) compensation for the victims. 

For those less familiar with the tanning industry, this photo-essay provides an overall picture of the tanning process in India, in which workers turn cowhides into leather ready for making purses, coats, shoes, and other products.

To the east, in Bangladesh, the leather tanning business has many similarities. There, too, workers and the surrounding communities face major health risks as a result of the tanneries. A powerful video published by Aljazeera last week takes a look at the industry:

In both Bangladesh and India the proper location of tanneries is actively disputed. The government of Bangladesh says it will shut down all tanneries in Hazaribagh after the deadline of June 2016, following an earlier series of unmet and extended deadlines. The tanneries are supposed to be relocating now to Savar, but this may jeapordize the health of still clean waterways. In India, due to the mass pollution of the Ganga river with toxic waste from tanneries, the industry is also under pressure to relocate.

Will the moving of tanneries result in an improved industry? Or will the displacing of the problem only mean different exploited workers, different polluted rivers, different suffering communities? Despite a Human Rights Watch report highlighting these issues in 2012, few viable solutions have been secured.