"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.
Read the rest of Pulitzer Center grantee Sean Gallagher’s piece and view the whole slideshow here. Sean is reporting on the cost of toxic pollution in India.