Real India needs real answers

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Pali is a textile town deep in water-scarce Rajasthan. It is well known for the cloth it produces. But it is even better known for the filth it also produces, best seen in the colours in its mostly dry river, the Bandi. Pali's pollution, and the protest of residents and neighbouring farmers, is part of the environmental movements of this country. The protests resulted in the setting up of a common effluent treatment plant, one of the first in India. This town has reinvented the polluter pays principle. It charges a 'pollution cess' on every bale of cloth to pay for its water treatment costs. It should have been the story of successful pollution management. It should have taught us how small textile dying units, located in water-scarce areas, can mitigate environmental stress. Pali should have been textbook material.

But this is not the case. Farmers continue to cry for clean water, demanding their right to cultivate. So what is the problem?

Visiting the town I learnt that Pali is still textbook material. It is a case study of how pollution by small factories, owned by the relatively less rich, using technologies that aren't state-of-the-art, can destroy the homes and livelihoods of the even lesser rich. How the poor can become the enemies of the poorer. Pali, ultimately, is about the poverty of India where answers to pollution will have to be reinvented.

Small-scale units are vastly superior to their powerful competitors in the large-scale and organised sector because they provide jobs. But they are relatively poor: in technology, in money to invest in efficiency and pollution control. They all operate in the unorganised sector. Some operate illegally.

The problem is these units vastly pollute. Pali is in a region that, even in the best of times, is starved of water. Its only river is a seasonal drain. But the little water it gets in the monsoon is critical since the aquifer gets recharged. Wells fill up. Farmers have some water to grow crops.

In this region, there is no scope for pollution. There is no water here that will wash away colour and chemical sins. Here, the chemical becomes the river. It becomes the irrigation water. It fills up the seasonal river with poison, which then seeps into underground aquifers and into the wells. This is the challenge of pollution by the relatively poorer, in the land of the poor.

What about pollution control? Hardware exists: Pali has three common effluent treatment plants that can treat 22.4 million litres of wastewater daily. The local administration told me they have asked industry to build more plants to treat waste. They also plan to relocate illegal units to an industrial estate. I was told of plans -- without deadlines -- to build, repair and renovate town drains. The industry association says, in turn, existing plants are efficient, meeting standards. But the industry needs to find better technologies to further reduce pollution. The association says little research exists on cost-effective ways to rid water of colour and chemicals. It says they are doing their best.

Farmers of the region do not believe this. They say their river is poison, and this has, in turn, destroyed their fields. They wanted me to see. We drove for an hour along the river, downstream of the town, for 50 kilometres. What I saw shook even the experienced drain-inspector in me. The river was only chemical. The water smelt toxic. Its banks were caked with sludge. A farmer whose field adjoined the river said he could not use his well anymore. To test, I took a little sample. My hands soon smelt of a chemical and began to itch. Clearly there was something in this water.

In a 2004 survey of pollution in Pali, the Central Groundwater Board found that pollution has seeped into the underground lifelines of the region; that chemicals have invaded wells. Remember, this is a region where farmers will kill for a little water. Consider, then, what happens when water cannot be used because it is contaminated. It breaks the economy of the region. It drives farmers to desperation. Pollution anywhere is terrible. But in Pali, pollution is deadly and shattering.

The pollution control game can never come true. Drains are never completed and even as illegal units are relocated or closed down, more come up in its place. All this while, the river shrinks. The factories use groundwater. The river gets lesser recharge. It only gets the chemicals the factories discharge. In other words, it cannot assimilate any more waste.

Pali needs a plan that can work fast. First, it must estimate the quantum of pollution. Even today, after years of investment and planning in pollution control, nobody really knows how much waste the town generates, and so, how much pollution it must treat. Second, Pali must map the drains that bring the waste to the river, so that it can be intercepted and taken to the effluent treatment plants. All the waste should be trapped -- official or illegal. Currently, no one knows how much waste the main drain -- the Gandhi Nagar drain; surely an ironic reference to the Father of the Nation -- carries, and how to treat its effluents before it joins the river. Instead, all plans focus on refurbishing the drain upstream -- until the drain is picture-perfect, pollution cannot be controlled.

The difficult part is to completely treat the effluents so that the dry river gets water and not waste. This is the real challenge. This is where new technology is desperately needed. This is where we need science, not rocket science but real science: to find answers for poor industries, in poor areas, to combat pollution cheaply. Pali is not just about rogue industry and wretched farmers. It is about the failure of modern society to find answers for the real India.

--Sunita Narain

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