Two textile cities, Tirupur and Ludhiana, explore ways to stop effluent discharge into streams
Towards zero discharge
There was a time when people living along the Noyyal river in Tamil Nadu would freshen up by swimming in the river. Now goatherds chase their flock away if they go near the river. The reason is the river water has turned toxic. The dyes and salts from the industrial units of Tirupur, a textile hub, are dumped in the Noyyal. The pollution has affected farming too. There are few signs of cultivation in the fields as the river passes through Tirupur and Karur districts.
“Our children develop skin problems, livestock die after drinking the water and young men don’t get brides because there is no drinking water source nearby,” says A P Kandaswamy, president of the Noyyal River Ayacutdars Protection Association.
The farmers’ association has been fighting a legal battle against Tirupur’s dyeing and bleaching units since 2003. It won a major battle in February 2011 when the Madras High Court ordered that the 700-odd dyeing units in Tirupur be shut down. The order was given on a contempt petition moved by the farmers’ association, which pointed out that the industry and the state government were not complying with the court’s 2006 order to ensure zero liquid discharge (ZLD, meaning no liquid effluent is released in the open). On March 25, the court dismissed the factory owners’ plea that they should be given more time to implement the order.
Teething problems in Tirupur
The closure of the dyeing units has not reduced pollution significantly. The total dissolved solids (TDS) in the river has decreased from 5,000 mg/l to 3,000 mg/l since the closure, but this is not enough, says Kandaswamy, waving the latest data from the public works department which monitors the Noyyal.
Pollution norms specify a TDS limit of 250 mg/l. A dyeing unit owner says the pollution is being caused by other dyeing unit clusters not covered by the court case, and by illegal units.
In Tirupur, attempts to implement ZLD began in 2010 when existing treatment plants were upgraded and new ones set up. At present, there are 20 common effluent treatment plants (CETPs). To achieve ZLD, secondary treated waste is passed through membrane filters. The filter-reject, or reverse osmosis (RO) reject, is evaporated so that no pollutants are discharged in the open. The factory owners say there is a glitch. The evaporators in the CETPS are not efficient and cannot deal with the quality of effluent supplied (see ‘Inefficient evaporators’ on opposite page). For this reason, dyers claim, they had to cut production to comply with the court’s order on ZLD.
But the farmers’ association scoffs at the claims of the industrial units that they have stopped dumping effluents into the river. The colour of the water indicates continuing pollution, they say.
The industrial shut down has, meanwhile, assumed political colour. It was an important campaign issue in the just concluded assembly elections. The leading opposition party, AIADMK, claimed during its stint in the government from 2001 to 2006, it had plans to take Tirupur’s effluents to Tuticorin through a pipeline and discharge it into the sea—water quality suitable for marine discharge has the lowest wastewater standard. The plan was nixed by the DMK party when it came to power in 2006, says AIADMK.
The concept of ZLD emerged because the industry has repeatedly failed to meet the pollution discharge norms set by the Central and state pollution control boards (CPCB and SPCBs), says S Eswamoorthi of private firm ECP Consulting, in a paper on the subject. Till recently, SPCBs either issued show cause notices or penalised polluting units. “There has been a realisation that the present monitoring mechanism has failed to check the incessant discharge of wastewater,” says D D Basu, in-charge of pollution, assessment, monitoring and survey in CPCB.
It is not mandatory for every industry to achieve the stringent ZLD norms; only tanneries and distilleries are mandated to achieve the standard.
ZLD pushes up cost 30 per cent
In the case of Tirupur, the high court played a crucial role in mandating ZLD. But factory owners say implementing ZLD has increased costs 25 to 30 per cent. “Consumers must be willing to pay the extra cost. Everyone wants cheap, good garments and at the same time they accuse us of destroying the environment,” says a dyeing unit owner.
The capital cost of setting up a plant works out to Rs 100 per litre of effluent treated. “We had to take bank loans for this; many of us sold our wives’ jewellery. Now we have to shut down. How will we pay off the loans?” asks a dyeing unit owner.
CPCB has an established criterion that polluting industries must spend three to 10 per cent of their turnover on wastewater treatment. Tirupur factory owners say they have to spend more. “The government must subsidise the treatment if industry and livelihoods are at stake,” says R C Trivedi, former deputy director of CPCB. Tirupur industry owners say the Central and state governments have promised them Rs 320 crore for upgrading the CETPs but the release of money has been delayed because of assembly elections.
Since dyeing constitutes one-fourth of the total production cost, garment exporters say they find it cheaper to send material to be dyed to Ludhiana and Surat even after including transport costs. Tirupur textile hub, as a whole, employs some 400,000 people directly and another 200,000 indirectly. With the dyeing units closed, an estimated 200,000 people are out of work. Dyeing unit owners say even if the factories are reopened they would find it tough to get people back.
After the shut down, the industry is considering shifting the dyeing units to the SIPCOT industrial estate in Cuddalore on the Tamil Nadu coast. The inducement is the option of discharging effluents into the ocean. In January, the state government commissioned the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the National Institute of Oceanography at Goa to conduct a feasibility study.
Shweta Narayan who works with the SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitors, a citizens group that tracks pollution in the industrial estate, says coastal communities of Cuddalore and Puducherry will oppose the proposal as will people whose land will be acquired for installing the pipeline for carrying effluents to the sea.
Scientists say ZLD can be implemented in Tirupur if the industry gets down to it. A technology developed by S R Ramaswamy, a US-based chemical engineer, can make effluent treatment cost-effective at six to seven paise per litre after factoring in the recovered water and salts; the operational cost of one of the existing CETPs is 25-30 paise/l. His company, Neelkantaa Pollution Preventers, claims its technology can recover more water, salts and dyes, and it does not use RO.
Saving Ludhiana’s Budha stream
The Madras High Court mandated ZLD for the Tirupur factories because the Noyyal is a seasonal river and there is no possibility of treated effluents being diluted by freshwater. The story is the same in Ludhiana, another textile city and a pollution hot spot.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.