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The Life and Labor of Tannery Workers

Photographer: Piyal Adhikary


The leather industry occupies an important place in the Indian economy. It is an employment intensive sector with a vast potential for growth and exports but also a pollution intensive industry that relies on cheap labor. Tanning has a long history in India and has been a traditional trade for the poorer groups of the population. In the past, tanning was considered a poisonous profession and thus confined to the outskirts of settlements, amongst the poor.


One of the major production centers for leather and leather products is located in Calcutta, West Bengal. Hundreds of tanneries are operated in the city’s Tiljala, Topsia and Tangra districts. They are mostly run by local families living and working under indigent conditions. According to 1996 decisions of the Calcutta High Court and the Supreme Court of India and the guidelines of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, tanneries that are run in residential areas, including those in the Tiljala, Topsia and Tangra districts, are illegal. The water and air pollution caused by the tanneries is considerable. Many owners are blamed by local residents and the Pollution Control Board to be negligent when it comes to pollution control.


An average working day of a tannery laborer can vary from eight to 12 hours, depending on the work load. Cheap labor is the backbone of the tanning trade, with many workers and their families having no access to education and medical care. Most workers belong to the Muslim community or are migrants from other states of India or neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.


The vast majority of the country’s tanneries are small scale, traditional and family-run businesses. The Calcutta Leather Complex at Bantala was set up in an attempt to handle these small scale, unorganized sectors. The aim was to relocate the tanning workshops from the Tiljala, Topsia and Tangra areas to Bantala. Since July 2007, more than 400 of about 550 tanners have allocated land at the complex but only some 125 tanners have started operations.