Tirupur's crisis

Print edition : August 26, 2005

The ruling by the Madras High Court asking dyeing and bleaching units in Tirupur to install reverse osmosis plants for the secondary treatment of effluents causes consternation in the hosiery town.

A modern dyeing unit.-PICTURES: K. ANANTHAN

TIRUPUR, the hosiery capital of India, is undergoing an unprecedented crisis. On July 14 the Madras High Court ordered the closure of more than 600 dyeing and bleaching units, which are a key element in the production chain in the hosiery garment business. For almost a decade owners of the dyeing units in and around Tirupur had imagined that they could "manage" the problem of industrial pollution caused by the discharge of toxic effluents into the Noyyal, a non-perennial river that ends in the Cauvery, near Karur. But they paid a heavy price for believing that a business-as-usual attitude would fend off the challenge from those demanding a better way of doing business.

Having successfully employed stalling tactics, the dyeing units were unprepared for the tough ruling issued by the High Court asking them to install reverse osmosis (RO) plants for the secondary treatment of effluents from these units. The court had, in the course of arguments over the last 10 years, determined that only a zero discharge norm for effluents would save the river. The court took a stern view of the dyeing units' failure to comply with its earlier direction that they furnish proof of steps taken to install RO units. It observed that it was "agonised" by the repeated flouting of its orders and directed that units that had not paid 25 per cent of the cost of RO plants to equipment suppliers as advance be closed down immediately. It added teeth to its order by asking the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to ensure that the erring units are shut down.

The Court insisted on seeing tangible proof of the owners' sincerity of intent in the shape of demand drafts for the money paid as advance. This led to a flurry of activity in Tirupur in the next few days. Dyers, big and small, rushed to mobilise money. By July 21, most of the dyeing units had managed to present the proof. According to N. Kandaswamy, president of the Dyers' Association of Tirupur (DAT), 493 dyeing and bleaching units had managed to pay Rs.40-50 crores. A batch of more than 100 units had escaped the Court's wrath because they had already installed or taken steps to install RO plants.

Consultants offering an RO "solution" have come swarming into Tirupur. A leading dyer told Frontline: "Everybody wants now to fish in the troubled waters of Tirupur." There are varying estimates of the cost of installing an RO plant. However, the ballpark figure going around town is that an RO plant to handle one lakh litres of effluents would require an initial investment of Rs.1 crore on the technical solutions on offer).

THE hosiery business in this boomtown has long been held out as a model for the export-led growth path. It now faces its day of reckoning. For almost ten years the dyeing units here refused to pay heed to the cries of distress from those affected by rampant pollution. The dyeing units located on the banks of the Noyyal, which cuts through Tirupur, had refused to acknowledge the problems they were causing to the town's hinterland by the discharge of toxic effluents. Farmers near the Orathupalayam dam, which is located 30 km downstream on the Noyyal, have been engaged in a bitter legal battle with the dyeing units and the State authorities. They have been complaining for more than a decade that the discharge of effluents had rendered their land unfit for human use, let alone cultivation.

The problem of pollution in this region is not new. In the late 1990s, after sustained pressure from all quarters, the hosiery industry finally agreed to establish effluent treatment plants. As a result, most of the units in the town now employ some method of primary treatment, which ensures that the effluent does not have colour or odour. However, the salts used in the dyeing process remain in the effluent. The present problems of the dyeing units are related mainly to the question of secondary treatment of the effluents discharged by them.

According to the TNPCB, 8.8-crore litres of effluents, after primary treatment in effluent treatment plants, are being let out into the Noyyal every day. A TNPCB source told Frontline that the Board stipulates that the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water discharged into the river should not be more than 2,100 parts per million (ppm). It is well known - even the dyeing industry admits it - that the TDS levels in and around Tirupur are way above this norm. In fact, a leading dyer who had established an RO plant more than two years ago, told Frontline that the TDS level in the water in the Orathupalayam dam area is above 9,000 ppm; in summer, when water evaporation is higher, the level of TDS is even higher. He also pointed out that the level prescribed by the TNPCB only related to water used for cultivation. He argued that this was too high for water that was discharged into the Noyyal or any other river. "Zero effluent discharge is what the norm ought to be," he said.

In 1989, the Tamil Nadu government issued an order that banned the location of any industrial unit that discharges untreated effluent within one km of a river. Although many units were established in Tirupur before this, and many of them had extended textile processing capacity significantly since then, the government has not re-examined the issue even though a subsequent order extended this ban to a distance of 5 km. However, a great many dyeing units lie well within this distance and continue to pollute the river.

Not all the dyeing units are in the same boat. The bleaching and dyeing process constitutes only one step in the chain of activities in the hosiery industry; other major steps include yarn making, fabrication and stitching. Outsourcing is still the predominant method of getting work done, although several large integrated units, performing all activities "in-house", have emerged in recent years as dominant players in the business. A. Sakthivel, president of the Tirupur Exporters' Association (TEA), pointed out that since time was of essence in the export business, the larger players preferred to get the work done in their own premises in order to keep to stringent time schedules. Of course, cost cutting is another motive for doing this. However, according to one estimate, more than three-fourths of the dyeing activity is still being performed by individual units, many of them small, on a job-work basis.

The Noyyal at Mamarathu Pirivu in Tirupur.-

According to the DAT there are about 500 dyeing units located in Tirupur. Most of them are either linked to Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETP) or have their own plants. However, the dyeing segment of the industry is itself stratified. This is essentially in terms of their scale of operations.

Roughly speaking, in the absence of any study of the structure of the industry, at the top are the large dyeing units. These are owned by the integrated production units or are those that cater to the needs of the large exporting units. These units, which may number 50, according to industry sources, use about 5-6 lakh litres of water a day for their dyeing operations. The next category consists of the medium-sized units, which use up to 2 lakh litres of water a day; about 150 units may belong to this group. The next group consists of units that use less than 1 lakh litres of water a day; these number about 100. At the bottom of this structure are the small units, numbering about 150. Some of these are run by those who take on lease a unit owned by someone else. Or else, these are operations on leased lands, where the operator makes all the investment for the dyeing activity.

The bleaching units number about 200. Most segments of the industry - including the dyers themselves - agree that the court's decision to club bleachers with dyers is unfair. They point out that the bleaching process uses mainly chlorine, which is certainly not as hazardous as the chemical dyes that the dyers use. K.V. Giri, secretary of the Tirupur Bleachers' Association, said that most bleachers would not be able to invest the Rs.40-50 lakhs needed for an RO plant; nor is it necessary, he said. He said many of the bleachers had also paid the 25 per cent advance for RO plants fearing that they would be closed down otherwise. He said the investment needed for starting a bleaching unit was about Rs.5-10 lakhs and the high relative cost of an RO unit would completely unsettle the business. "We are a small business, merely glorified dhobis," he said.

STUNG by the court order, Tirupur went on a one-day bandh on July 26, supported by most political parties and trade unions. The bandh was called to protest the State government's "lethargic attitude" in the face of the serious crisis. The initial outbreak of anger after the court order is explained by the general sympathy that prevails for the small dyer. There are fears that the small dyeing units will be wiped out. In fact, some industry sources, especially those owning large units, even see this as an opportunity for consolidation. One said that it was "inevitable".

C. Govindasamy, Coimbatore east district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is worried that "at least 60 per cent of the dyeing units will close down if they are forced to install RO units without any assistance from the State and Union governments". He said that most of the units had "desperately" borrowed funds to meet the deadline set by the court. "In their desperation they have not thought out clearly how they are going to repay the loans," he said. The small dyeing units operate on a "tenuous basis" even in the best of times. Payments from the larger units are often delayed, though not always on account of "bad business practices".

Govindasamy reckons that the future of about 300 units hangs in the balance if no help or support is forthcoming from the governments. The impact will extend further because small exporters will be unable to meet the demands made by the larger dyers who will remain in business. The dyers who remain in the business, he said, will hold the upper hand in the event of a shakeout. They may demand payment in advance, which may not be possible for the smaller exporters. If that happens the shakeout may well affect the entire hosiery industry in Tirupur, whose exports total about Rs.6,000 crores annually.

Govindasamy pointed out that Tirupur's strength lay in possibilities that it offered to even those who could make relatively small investments. "That may no longer be possible, if only the big are allowed to survive," he said. Tirupur has offered employment to those in search of it in the wake of the widespread agrarian distress that swept across the State in the 1990s. Like a magnet it has attracted people from as far as Ramanathapuram and the Cauvery delta. If the magnet fails, Govindasamy fears that it will set off a wave of migration from Tirupur.

Opposition parties from across the political spectrum have demanded that the State government intervene immediately. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), not without substantial clout in the area, has demanded that the State government extend a subsidy of 25 per cent for the RO plants with a matching subsidy from the Union government. However, the BJP did not join the July 26 bandh, which was called by the parties constituting the Democratic Progressive Alliance.

THE Orathupalayam dam was opened on August 7. The committee of experts appointed by the Madras High Court, headed by S. Sivaraman, retired chief engineer of the Public Works Department, said that the polluted water in the dam would be fully drained in 17 days.

The sluice gates will be shut only after the dyeing and bleaching units in Tirupur attained the zero effluent discharge norm stipulated by the High Court. With sufficient water now flowing in the Cauvery, it was felt that this would the "opportune time" to empty the dam.

The team is to examine the extent of silt in the dam and assess its toxicity. It will also analyse the sludge generated by the dyeing units after primary treatment. A 3.2-acre landfill at Nallur near here has been identified by the TNPCB for dumping the sludge generated by the dyeing units. If the silt is found to be hazardous, the committee will examine the possibility of dumping it in the same landfill.

A common effluent treatment plant in Tirupur by the Noyyal. The pile-up of sludge is stacked alongside.-

The problem of disposal of sludge is likely to become serious in the days ahead because of the possibility of affecting the groundwater in Tirupur itself.

Referring to the often-voiced complaint that dyeing units are discharging effluents in the river on the sly, Sivaraman said the committee would identify the effluent outlets of the units and seal them once they attained the zero discharge norm.

There is much irony in the industry's demand that the government extend help in this hour of crisis. Ever since liberalisation, the industry, bitten by the liberalisation bug, has been demanding that government intervention be minimal.

If at all, it has been demanding only more stringent labour legislation that would enable it to hire and fire at will and without having to pay for benefits. Today that demand rings a discordant note in the wake of its demand for subsidies and help.

Industry sources admit that RO may not offer a "final solution" yet. They admit that although RO may reduce effluents, the sludge that remains will be even more toxic. The industry would do well to take this into account now if it does not wish to be overtaken by circumstances or taken by surprise. Clearly, business has to take a different turn in Tirupur.

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