A pollution challenge

Print edition : June 20, 1998

The textile-related industry in Karur and Tirupur in Tamil Nadu, and the large workforce involved, face an uncertain future following court-ordered closure for failing to check pollution.

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR in Karur Photographs: S. Thanthoni

TAMIL NADU's major textile towns, Karur, known for cotton textiles, and Tirupur, known for hosiery, face an uncertain future in industrial terms. The Supreme Court on May 14 refused to stay the orders of the Green Bench of the Madras High Court, which virtually directed the closure of more than 900 bleaching and dyeing units in the towns for polluting the environment, particularly ground and surface water. The Green Bench, comprising Justices M. S. Liberhan and E. Padmanabhan, declined to grant them any further extension of time beyond May 11 to enable them to set up common effluent treatment plants (CETPs). The orders with respect to 434 units in Karur and 470 units in Tirupur were passed on April 21 and 25 respectively.

About two lakh workers in Karur and four lakh workers in Tirupur depend on these units for their livelihood directly or indirectly. The Tamil Nadu Government had called a meeting with the representatives of the industry and environmental groups in Chennai on May 7 and decided to support the industry's plea to the Supreme Court seeking six more months to comply with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board's (TNPCB) order that CETPs be set up to control the emission of effluents.

The textile industry, involving handlooms and powerlooms, began to flourish in Karur after farmers switched over to it in a big way as agriculture became unviable following frequent monsoon failures. During the last three decades the town emerged as a major textile centre with its 1,000-odd powerloom and handloom units producing bedspreads, towels and furnishings. Sales in the domestic market has amounted to Rs.150 crores a year in recent times. Units in Karur exported textiles worth Rs.400 crores annually in the mid-1990s. The number of direct exporters, which was six or seven in the mid-1970s, grew to over a hundred by that time.

With the growth of the weaving industry, dyeing and bleaching activity expanded. There are about 1,000 units along a 17-km stretch on the banks of the Amaravati, which undertake dyeing, bleaching, weaving, tailoring, knitting, knotting, packaging, transporting and trading. These units together employ about two lakh people. Hank yarn processed in this area accounts for over 70 per cent of the yarn dyed and bleached in the State. They feed handlooms in Salem, Dindigul, Tiruchi, Erode, Coimbatore, Tirunelveli and Madurai districts.

Untreated toxic effluents from bleaching and dyeing units in Karur in the Amaravati river.-

THE dyeing and bleaching units use a variety of toxic chemicals, including hydroxides, hydrochloric acid, sulphuric acid and sodium nitrate. The toxic content of the effluents increased in the 1990s with dyers switching to vat and reactive dyes such as prochean from Naphthol after European countries banned the import of textiles treated with azo-dyes.

According to District Environmental Engineer K. Gokuldas, the toxic parametres had gone far above tolerable levels: the level of suspended solids was 2,000 milligrams/litre against the maximum permissible 100mg/l; total dissolved solids (TSD) was 5,000 mg/1 against the permissible 2,100; biological oxygen demand (BOD) was 250 mg/1 against 30; chemical oxygen demand (COD) was 600 mg/1 against 250; chlorite was 4,000 mg/1 against 1,000; and sulphate was 1,500 mg/1 against 1,000.

Most of these units were small or tiny and their pattern of development was haphazard. They failed to install effluent treatment plants; they let out their waste into open drains or in the Amaravati and its 12 irrigation channels. This led to pollution not only in Karur but the adjoining and downstream areas.

P.R. Kuppuswamy, convener of the Committee for Protection of the Cauvery, who filed the petition relating to the Tirupur units, said: "On either side of the Amaravati, water became unfit for cultivation as the effluents killed the germs and worms in the soil, reducing soil fertility. The effluents caused various health problems such as skin allergies and lung infections."

Little was done to correct the situation until May 1993 when the residents of about 20 villages covered by the Thanthoni protected water supply scheme started getting blood-red water from their taps. On May 3, 1993, R. Subramanian, secretary, Karur Consumer and Environmental Protection Council (KCEPC), approached the TNPCB seeking the closure of the polluting units. Although the TNPCB replied the very next day assuring him of action, nothing came of it. The local residents took to the streets and their relentless agitation forced the District Revenue Officer (DRO) to convene a meeting of the owners of the dyeing units and local government officials.

The units agreed to stop the release of effluents into the Amaravati from May 18, 1993 and to set up a CETP with the help of the Government. The State Government proposed to set up a CETP at a cost of Rs. 5 crores; Rs. 4 crores was to be provided by it and the Centre and the rest of the cost was to be borne by the polluting units. The Dyeing Owners Association set up the Karur Taluk Dyeing and Bleaching Effluent Treatment Plant Company Limited and asked all dyers to become its members.

As the residents continued to get coloured water from the taps, they presented a memorandum to the DRO seeking a ban on the letting of effluents into the Amaravati. On June 7, 1993, the DRO issued notices under Section 133 of the Civil Procedure Code (CPC) to 60 units to close down within three days.

However, the pollution remained unchecked. In 1994, after a prolonged agitation by local residents, the State Government announced a plan to set up five more CETPs at a cost of Rs. 10 crores - 40 per cent of the amount was to be provided as subsidy by the State and Central governments (the subsidy was subsequently increased to 50 per cent); 40 per cent was to be raised in the form of a loan from the Industrial Development Bank of India (this component was later reduced to 30 per cent); and 20 per cent was to be contributed by dyers. Work on the project was to begin in 1995. Companies were formed for this purpose, but the work did not begin. While the share capital from the members trickled in, the subsidy component proved difficult to come.

In February and then in November 1995, the KCEPC wrote to the Karur District Collector and the TNPCB, urging them to take action. There was no response. On March 21, 1996, however, the Joint Chief Executive Engineer, TNPCB, Tiruchi, informed the KCEPC that eight CETPs would be set up after dividing the area into as many zones, and that work had begun on only three of the CETPs that had originally been planned, because of delays in getting Government subsidy. Again, the progress was tardy.

In March 1997, the National Trust for Clean Environment and the KCEPC approached the Green Bench seeking the closure of the polluting units. The writ petition was admitted in July 1997 and the TNPCB was directed to file a status report. Of the 608 units, 434 were to be attached to CETPs, 167 were to set up their own treatment plants, and seven had stopped operations.

According to a TNPCB report of August 12, 1997, some CETPs were in various stages of construction while in the case of others work was yet to start. Of the 167 units that had opted not to be attached to CETPs, only one had set up a treatment plant of its own; 162 units had not started work on their plants. On August 14, the court directed the TNPCB to ensure that in the next three months those units which released untreated effluents into the Amaravati were closed down.

In September 1997, the polluting units filed petitions seeking an injunction to restrain the TNPCB from forcing them to close down. But closure notices were issued to these units on November 20, 1997 on the expiry of the deadline set by the court.

The stoppage of work in the dyeing units affected the weaving industry. To feed the export market, yarn had to be sent to Erode and Salem for dyeing. This increased the cost of dyed yarn. The increased cost could not be passed on to the buyers because prices had been committed earlier. Also, a number of consignments were returned as the colours did not match the orders. According to C. Ganesan, managing director, A-Tex, thousands of workers were rendered jobless in Karur.

Counsel for the various parties then agreed on a consensus approach and jointly inspected the affected areas. They filed a joint report in the Madras High Court on January 22, 1998, seeking three months' time to set up CETPs. The court accepted the report and allowed the units that had agreed to be linked to CETPs to function until the CETPs were set up. The units that had opted out of CETP plan were not allowed to function. However, several units are said to have worked between January and April in violation of the court order.

According to a TNPCB report of April 6, among the units that were not linked to the CETPs, 115 had not begun work on their treatment plants. As for the eight CETPs, the level of completion of civil work ranged from 38 per cent to 90 per cent, but mechanical and electrical works were not taken up. The report concluded that "the polluting units had not taken serious steps in completing the ETPs."

On April 10, the association of dyeing and bleaching units filed petitions in the High Court seeking another six months to set up treatment plants. The petitioners said that the delay was inevitable as permission had not been given by the Public Works and Highways Departments to lay pipelines from the units to CETPs and to construct manholes and collection wells.

The court dismissed the petitions on April 22. The TNPCB sent closure orders to the units that came under CETP and also to those that had promised to set up individual ETPs but failed to do so. Many units, however, continued to operate.

The dyers' and bleachers' associations moved the Supreme Court seeking more time to set up CETPs, and the State Government supported their appeal. The Supreme Court on May 14 ordered status quo in both cases, and adjourned the case to May 27. The case will now come up for hearing on July 20.

According to C. Ganesan. who is also the chairman of CETP companies, Karur-Andankoil Pollution Control Ltd. and Amaravati Pollution Control Ltd., the task of laying the pipelines from the various units, which are scattered all over the town, is a difficult and time-consuming one as the pipelines have to pass through the narrow lanes and bylanes of the congested town.

Textile Exporters Association secretary M. Sivakannan agrees with Ganesan. He says that the delay was mainly in getting clearances from government departments. According to him, the 'single window clearance system' introduced by the District Collector did not seem to work at the lower levels of the bureaucracy. Residents' opposition to laying pipelines right outside their doors also slowed down the work. Two units - Karur Taluk Dyeing and Bleaching Ltd and Vanchi Dyeing Enviro Tech Ltd. - are awaiting clearance from the Railways as the pipelines have to be laid across tracks.

Even the CETP at Karuppampalayam, work on which has made considerable progress, has been facing problems in laying the inlet and outlet pipes owing to the rocky terrain. After the serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore in February, the district administration has banned the use of explosives to smash through rocks. Other operations, such as the erection of agitators, aerators, pumps and so on, have been completed.

P. Subramanian, president, Karur Taluk Dyeing and Bleaching Factory Owners Association, says: "It is not our fault that we are unable to meet the court deadline. The Government should intervene to expedite the projects."

Work in progress in a dyeing unit.-

P.R. Kuppuswamy, petitioner in the Tirupur case, concurs with the view that the problem has assumed alarming proportions because the Government failed to tackle it with due seriousness.

THE situation is not very different in Tirupur, which is hardly 100 km away. For most part of the year, only toxic effluents flow in the Cauvery's tributary, the Noyyal, which cuts across Tirupur. The 700-odd dyeing and bleaching units here have rendered water in a 30 km radius of the town unfit for consumption. These units discharge nearly 13 million litres of untreated effluents into the Noyyal every day. The sodium content in the effluents is fast displacing the calcium and magnesium present in the soil and making farming unproductive. Besides the chemicals usually used in dyeing, chemicals that have the toxic benzidine structure, which are used in the processing of cotton, also add to the damage.

From humble beginnings in the 1930s, Tirupur's hosiery industry has grown immensely, first as a domestic supplier and then as an exporter. Units situated in Tirupur accounted for foreign exchange earnings equivalent to Rs. 18 crores in 1985; since the early 1990s, the industry has been fetching Rs. 2,000 crores every year in foreign exchange. To cater to the growing demand, numerous small dyeing and bleaching units were set up along a stretch of 30 km on either side of Noyyal, most of them without securing a 'no objection certificate' from the TNPCB. All these units release raw, untreated effluents into the river, affecting not only Tirupur but also areas in the neighbouring Periyar district. The Tirupur municipal hospital reports widespread incidence of skin diseases and pulmonological disorders.

The fortunes of Tirupur, which was already passing through a crisis because of its inability to meet competition from Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Taiwan and Pakistan, dipped further in 1996 owing to the pollution the dyers and bleachers were causing.

The Tirupur Dyers Association formed Tirupur Effluent Treatment Company Pvt. Ltd.(TETCO) in 1991, to set up four treatment plants with 50 per cent State and Central subsidy for each. At that time, according to Tirupur Dyers Association president N. Kandaswamy, there were 200 units. By the time a survey was done for the plants and a project report prepared, three years had passed and the number of units had increased four-fold. He says that the TNPCB should have obtained no objection certificates before they began operations.

The technical work on the treatment plants was entrusted to Larsen & Toubro. Meanwhile, the State Government capped its subsidy at Rs.50 lakh a plant. A share capital of Rs. 1 crore (10 per cent of the cost) had already been raised from the association's members and 10 acres of land had been purchased through the Revenue Department.

As the work on the CETPs got delayed, the cost rose to Rs. 40 crores, and the members' share capital went up to Rs. 8 crores (20 per cent). A sum of Rs.31 crores was to be raised from the financial institutions. As the revised estimates showed that each member had to pay between Rs. 50,000 and Rs. 1.5 lakh every month towards fixed and recurring expenditure, the dyers shelved the idea.

At a dyeing unit that remains closed.-

All the while, untreated effluents released into the Noyyal caused further damage to ground and surface water. The effects of the pollution were evident at the Orathapalayam dam, which is 20 km downstream of Tirupur and which irrigated 20,000 acres of farmland.

In June 1994, the Coimbatore Collector met representatives of the TNPCB and the Tirupur Dyers Association and an agreement was reached to set up eight CETPs. Of the 800-odd dyeing units 300 were to be connected to these CETPs. The rest were to have individual plants.

However, there was no progress in the setting up of the CETPS, and in December 1995 the TNPCB set January 31, 1996 as the deadline for the dyeing units to start work on CETPs. With no progress in sight even in February 1996, Karur Taluk Noyyal Irrigation Farmers Association president P.R. Kuppuswamy filed a public interest petition before the Green Bench of the Madras High Court seeking the closure of all polluting units in Tirupur. The court ordered the TNPCB to issue show-cause notices to these polluting units and then file a status report on the ETPs. According to a November 27, 1997 TNPCB report, more than half the units had not started work in the ETPs.

On March 6, 1997, the Green Bench directed the units that had constructed treatment plants to apply to the TNPCB for consent to start work by the end of April and ordered those that had started work on the ETPs to complete the work by June 1997. It ordered the closure of 114 units that had not taken any steps to treat their effluents.

A common effluent treatment plant.-

On June 20, 1997, the Green Bench, on a plea from the Dyers Association, extended the time until November 20, 1997. But as the setting up of the ETPs was delayed, a consensus approach, as in the case of Karur, was sought to be adopted and a joint inspection was undertaken in February 1998 by counsel for all the parties concerned. A joint report was submitted to the Green Bench.

On February 10, the Green Bench agreed to extend the deadline for the setting up of the CETPs by three more months, until May 11. This concession was extended also to the 321 units that were to set up their own ETPs and had completed over 75 per cent of the work. The rest were to face closure.

On April 25, the Dyers Association sought more time, maintaining that there was a delay in getting machinery, power connections and Central subsidy. But the Green Bench was firm. It ordered the closure of all the units that did not have the facility to treat their effluents.

ACCORDING to the latest TNPCB report, of the 464 units that are to be set up individual ETPs, 174 have completed 100 per cent of the work, 199 have completed 75 per cent of the work; and the rest less that 75 per cent of the work.

According to one estimate, over Rs.40 crores have been invested in the eight CETPs. The Rs.6.75-crore, 75-member CETP at Veerapandi is the only one that is almost complete. The chairman of the company that has launched the CETP, P. Subramanian, said: "Only the State subsidy has reached us. The Central subsidy and the Rs.75-lakh loan from the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) are yet to come." While 115 units have completed work on individual ETPs, they are yet to get the TNPCB's consent. According to S. Appuswamy, secretary of the Federation of Tirupur Common Effluent Treatment Plants, the task of treating the 13 million litres of effluents that is generated every day is an enormous one. The project, started in 1996, encountered numerous difficulties, and the resultant delay pushed up the total cost from Rs. 22 crores to over Rs. 35 crores, he said.

The Central subsidy for the two CETPs at Chinnakarai and Kasipalayam has been released through the IDBI. But the money is locked up as these CETPs do not have any arrangement with the IDBI to receive it. The bank imposes stringent conditions - that the CETPS pay up the equivalent of six monthly instalments and provide collateral security equivalent to the loan amount (apart from the land, the plant and the machinery of CETPs). Like Karur, Tirupur also faces bottlenecks in laying pipelines for CETPs. In many cases, power supply has not been provided. The ban on the use of explosives is also a hindrance.

According to Appuswamy, the groundwater in Tirupur town is polluted to a considerable extent: it contains 3,000-4,000 ppm of TDS against the permissible limit of 2,000 ppm. He claims that the technology to treat such a voluminous discharge in non-existent. What is required is research to bring down the TDS level to reasonable limits and cut down the level of salts in dyestuff, according to him. The disposal of sludge in another problem. It is estimated that at least 100 tonnes of sludge will have to be disposed of every year.

With all these problems, the industry face a difficult future. But the pollution the dyeing and bleaching units cause is even more worrisome.

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