Ear to the ground

Can the courts save India's rivers from pollution? Tirupur shows the answer is no

The second part of a series from Tamil Nadu tracing the course of Noyyal, a tributary of the Cauvery.

A slum sprawled on one side of the river. In the distance, a factory belched smoke in the air. The riverbed was overrun with weeds and crammed with plastic bags that were half buried into the earth. An earthmover scooped gunk from an open drain and dumped it on top of the debris. The river itself was a thin trickle of black.

Welcome to Tirupur, an industrial city in central Tamil Nadu, where India's judicial system tried – and failed – to save a river.

The Noyyal is a small river which starts in the western ghats and flows 170 kilometres to merge into the Cauvery. It passes through Tirupur, where factories have been emptying out effluents in its waters ever since a textile hub came up in the 1970s.

After the state failed to protect the river, in 1996, the Supreme Court intervened. It ordered dyeing units in Tirupur to shut down if they could not stop polluting the river. Fifteen years later, in 2011, the Madras High Court followed up by applying the "Polluter Pays" principle, directing the dyeing factories to become zero discharge units by recycling waste water and pumping it back for reuse.

Since then, the larger units in Tirupur have set up their own effluent treatment plants. The smaller ones have come together to set up Common Effluent Treatment Plants. In all, 18 CETPs are operating here.

But the river still does not look clean.

The first part of this series flagged how the state administration in Tamil Nadu has been unable to protect the Noyyal. That story traced the river's journey from its source till Coimbatore.

This story looks at what happens to the Noyyal after it leaves Comibatore, and why even judicial remedies to protect the river have failed.

The view from Tirupur

The centrality of garments in Tirupur shows up in a million different ways.

Walk down its residential colonies and you will see tiny factories with people sewing or stitching away. A restaurant in a city hotel is called “T-Shirt”, and its outdoor section, “Wind-cheater”.

For the most part, the cluster is small-scale. S Sakthivel, the executive secretary of the Tirupur Exporters Association puts the number of small and medium units in the city to about 7,000.

At the end of a dirt track that parallels the river bank, stand a few dyeing units. The first has a large shed where bales of cream-coloured fabric are being fed into a long machine. The fabric passes through and comes out from the other end a beautiful indigo.

The owner of the company, who spoke on the condition of not being identified, said the CETP is too costly. He pays anywhere between Rs 12 lakh-Rs 15 lakh each month for effluent treatment. This is a problem because his company's turnover is Rs 12 crore. In an industry as cut-throat as garment export, the Rs 1.4 crore-Rs 1.8 crore that he puts aside for water treatment wipes out most of his margins.

Later in the day, at the CETP at Rayapuram which services this dyeing unit, it becomes clearer why treatment costs are so high. Initially, said a manager at the plant, 31 companies used to get their waste water treated here. Now, only 14 companies do. Seventeen have shut down. This means the running cost of the plant is now spread over a smaller number of dyeing units.

Garbage is dumped alongside the river. Photo by M Rajshekhar.
Garbage is dumped alongside the river. Photo by M Rajshekhar.

As it is, when units in a cluster are told to get their effluent treated, they cannot compete with those polluting freely. The owner had said: “In Gujarat, they dump raw effluent into the river. Right now, we have a gross margin of about 15%. If we were in Gujarat, that would be 30%.”

This has resulted in some predictable outcomes. Some units, said S Senthilanthan, an academic in Tirupur who has been studying the Noyyal, resettled outside Tirupur and kept polluting as before. The ones that stayed found the costs of using the CETPs kept rising. This created an incentive to try and bypass the CETP and dump waste directly into the Noyyal.

That is not all. After cleaning the waste water by passing it through multiple membranes, the CETPs are eventually left with a slurry. In the early days after the High Court order, there was no disposal system for this reject. A 2014 report by Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust For Research in Ecology and the Environment (commonly known as “Atree”) said: “The reject from all the CETPs was simply being dumped locally... In effect, the entire pollutant load was being released back into the Noyyal in 2009, and the expensive CETP performed no real pollution-reduction function at all.”

It adds: “To what extent this issue has been rectified today is unclear. During our field visits, we found sites where the sludge was being dewatered and dumped in various places.... It appears that the government has not sanctioned an official dumping site. Our field visits and conversations with farmers suggest that dumping effluents into abandoned borewells might be an approach that some industries are adopting.”

Agrees Senthilanathan: “There is no clear protocol on what to do with the slurry. Some of it goes to solar evaporation ponds. But when it rains, they might overflow. There is also the risk of seepage and groundwater contamination.”

As it is, dyeing units are not the only source of pollution in Tirupur. Washing and printing units also release waste water, a businessman pointed out. In addition, effluent is also released by households, eateries and other businesses like automobile workshops. Not to mention unauthorised dyeing units which operate on a very small scale. These work out of residential areas and discharge their wastewater into the local drains. Their waste, said the businessman, flows straight into the river.

Why, then, did the High Court direct only the dyeing units to set up CETPs?

According to D Nagasaila, a lawyer in the Madras High Court who fought the Tirupur case on behalf of the farmers living downstream, the case shows the limitations. “In their petition, the farmers had only mentioned the dyeing industry,” she said. Working with their understanding of the problem, that is how they had defined the source of pollution. And the judges, working with just the information given to them, had cracked down only on the dyeing units.

It makes you wonder if the government should have set up the CETPs instead of putting the onus on individual units.

The consequences of such decisions are visible at Orathupalayam.

From Tirupur to Orathupalayam

From Tirupur, the Noyyal flows to the Orathupalayam dam.

Commissioned in 1992, this is one of the most polluted reservoirs in India. For years together, its floodgates were not opened – given farmers' fears about pollution.

In August 2005 , taking the advantage of heavy rains, the floodgates were opened to flush the reservoir. The exercise deposited over 0.5 million cubic feet of toxic effluents in the Cauvery and yielded more than 400 tonnes of dead fish and a reservoir bed that was several metres thick with toxic sludge.

Six years later, the High Court passed an order imposing the zero liquid discharge rule – essentially telling the dyeing units to reduce their wastewater discharge down to zero.

The Orathupalayam dam. Photo by M Rajshekhar.
The Orathupalayam dam. Photo by M Rajshekhar.

But, as we see, zero discharge is not quite working. And so, how is the dam doing?

At a tea shop about two kilometres from the dam, villagers say their groundwater is salty and dark in colour. They do not drink it. There is no farming for five kilometres on either side of the river. People in the village – farmers once upon a time – now do job work in Tirupur.

A dirt track takes us towards the dam. Walk up its wall and you gaze down on a reservoir where nothing grows but the scrub tree of Prosopis juliflora. Look downstream and you see black water oozing out of the floodgates. A white foam floats on it.

It is a far cry from the stream that existed 130 km ago – one with water pure enough to drink.

From here, the ravaged river flows on for another 40 km before dissolving into the Cauvery.

If the Noyyal is affected by over-extraction of water and industrial pollution, other rivers in the state are struggling due to sand mining. Later in this series, a look at why sand mining is so rampant in Tamil Nadu.

You can read the first story about the Noyyal here. The entire Ear to the Ground series is available here.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Want to retire at 45? Make your money work for you

Common sense and some discipline are all you need.

Dreaming of writing that book or taking that cruise when you hit your 40s? Well, this dream need not be unrealistic.

All it takes is simple math and the foresight to do some smart financial planning when you are still young. If you start early and get into the discipline of cutting down on unnecessary expenditure, using that money to invest systematically, you can build wealth that sets you free to tick those items off your bucket list sooner than later.

A quick look at how much you spend on indulgences will give you an idea of how much you can save and invest. For example, if you spend, say Rs. 1,000 on movie watching per week, this amount compounded over 10 years means you would have spent around Rs 7,52,000 on just movies! You can try this calculation for yourself. Think of any weekly or monthly expense you regularly make. Now use this calculator to understand how much these expenses will pile up overtime with the current rate of inflation.

Now imagine how this money could have grown at the end of 10 years and overcome the inflation effect if you had instead invested a part of it somewhere!

It is no rocket science

The fact is that financial planning is simpler than we imagine it to be. Some simple common sense and a clear prioritization of life’s goals is all you need:

  1. Set goals and work backwards: Everything starts with what you want. So, what are your goals? Are they short-term (like buying a car), medium-term (buying a house) or long-term (comfortable living post-retirement). Most of us have goals that come under all the three categories. So, our financial plans should reflect that. Buying a house, for example, would mean saving up enough money for up-front payment and ensuring you have a regular source of income for EMI payment for a period of at least 15-20 years. Buying a car on the other hand might just involve having a steady stream of income to pay off the car loan.
  2. Save first, spend later: Many of us make the mistake of putting what is left, after all our expenses have been met, in the savings kitty. But the reverse will have more benefits in the long run. This means, putting aside a little savings, right at the beginning of the month in the investment option that works best for you. You can then use the balance to spend on your expenditures. This discipline ensures that come what may, you remain on track with your saving goals.
  3. Don’t flaunt money, but use it to create more: When you are young and get your first jobit is tempting to spend on a great lifestyle. But as we’ve discussed, even the small indulgences add up to a serious amount of cash over time. Instead, by regulating indulgences now and investing the rest of your money, you can actually become wealthy instead of just seeming to be so.
  4. Set aside emergency funds: When an emergency arises, like sudden hospitalisation or an accident, quick access to money is needed. This means keeping aside some of your money in liquid assets (accessible whenever you want it). It thus makes sense to regularly save a little towards creating this emergency fund in an investment that can be easily liquidated.
  5. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: This is something any investment adviser will tell you, simply because different investment options come with different benefits and risks and suit different investment horizons. By investing in a variety of instruments or options, you can hedge against possible risks and also meet different goals.

How and Why Mutual Funds work

A mutual fund is a professionally managed investment scheme that pools money collected from investors like you and invests this into a diversified portfolio (an optimal mix) of stocks, bonds and other securities.

As an investor, you buy ‘units’, under a mutual fund scheme. The value of these units (Net Asset Value) fluctuates depending on the market value of the mutual fund’s investments. So, the units can be bought or redeemed as per your needs and based on the value.

As mentioned, the fund is managed by professionals who follow the market closely to make calls on where to invest money. This makes these funds a great option for someone who isn’t financially very savvy but is interested in saving up for the future.

So how is a mutual fund going to help to meet your savings goals? Here’s a quick Q&A helps you understand just that:

  1. How do mutual funds meet my investment needs? Mutual Funds come with a variety of schemes that suit different goals depending on whether they are short-term, medium-term or long-term.
  2. Can I withdraw money whenever I want to? There are several mutual funds that offer liquidity – quick and easy access to your money when you want it. For example, there are liquid mutual funds which do not have any lock in period and you can invest your surplus money even for one day. Based on your goals, you can divide your money between funds with longer term or shorter term benefits.
  3. Does it help save on taxes? Investing in certain types of mutual funds also offers you tax benefits. More specifically, investing in Equity Linked Saving Schemes, which are funds that invest in a diverse portfolio of equities, offers you tax deductions up to Rs. 1.5 lakhs under Section 80C of the Income Tax Act.
  4. Don’t I need a lot of money to invest in MFs? No, you can start small. The returns in terms of percentage is the same irrespective of the amount you invest in. Additionally, the Systematic Investment Plan (SIP) allows you to invest a small amount weekly, monthly or quarterly in a mutual fund. So, you get to control the size and frequency of your investment and make sure you save before you spend.
  5. But aren’t MFs risky? Well many things in life are risky! Mutual funds try to mitigate your risk by investing your money across a variety of securities. You can further hedge risk by investing in 2 to 3 mutual offers that offer different growth stories i.e. a blue-chip fund and a mid-cap fund. Also remember in a mutual fund, your money is being managed by professionals who are constantly following the market.
  6. Don’t I have to wait too long to get back my returns? No! Mutual Funds, because of the variety of options they offer, can give you gains in the short or medium term too.

The essence of mutual funds is that your money is not lying idle, but is dynamically invested and working for you. To know more about how investing in mutual funds really works for you, see here.

Disclaimer: Mutual Fund investments are subject to market risks, read all scheme related documents carefully.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Mutual Funds Sahi Hai and not by the Scroll editorial team.