Wastelands of the Noyyal

Despite court orders, dyeing units of Tiruppur have poisoned the Noyyal river and thus laid waste vast areas of agricultural land in three districts of Tamil Nadu over a period of three decades.

Published : Jan 31, 2018 12:30 IST

Water polluted with effluents flowing over the check dam near Anaipalayam village in Tiruppur district.

Water polluted with effluents flowing over the check dam near Anaipalayam village in Tiruppur district.

FOR about 90 kilometres of its course of 160 km, the Noyyal river, a tributary of the Cauvery, is dead. Effluents loaded with salt and dangerous chemicals, discharged by the textile dyeing industries in Tiruppur district of Tamil Nadu, have killed the river. From Murugampalayam in Tiruppur district to Noyyal village in Karur district, the broad, swift-flowing Noyyal has been reduced to a stricken stream of effluents. Consequently, agriculture in lakhs of acres in Tiruppur, Erode and Karur districts has been ruined.

The Noyyal river originates in Velliyangiri Hills in the Western Ghats in Coimbatore district. It traverses Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode and Karur districts before it joins the Cauvery river in Noyyal village. The Cauvery has three tributaries in this region: the Noyyal, the Amaravathi and the Bhavani.

Tiruppur district accounts for the largest part of India’s textile export. It has 758 dyeing units where fabric is dyed using chemicals, salt and water. The chemicals used are sulphuric acid, sodium chloride, sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid, chlorine, lime, soda ash and sodium metabisulfite. The effluents generated from the dyeing process include sludge, chemical sludge, salt and solar residue. The dyeing units send the effluents by a pipeline to Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs), where they are treated and converted into reusable water. From the CETPs, this water is sent to the units for use again to dye fabrics.

Farmers allege that scores of dyeing units in Tiruppur district were discharging untreated effluents into the Noyyal in violation of Supreme Court and Madras High Court orders, which had directed them not to discharge treated or untreated effluents into the river. On January 28, 2011, the Madras High Court ordered the closure of all dyeing and bleaching units and CETPs in Tiruppur district after the CETPs failed to achieve zero liquid discharge (ZLD) as directed by the High Court and the Supreme Court. ZLD entails that dyeing units should not discharge even a drop of water into the environment.

Seven years after the High Court delivered this landmark judgment, scores of dyeing units continue to illegally pump effluents into the Noyyal, the farmers allege. D. Karuppusamy (31), an activist and a farmer from Anaipalayam village in Tiruppur district, said: “Agriculture has become impossible from 1988 over a stretch of 2 km on both the banks of the Noyyal from Murugampalayam to Noyyal village. Where we grew paddy, sugarcane, banana, cotton, turmeric and vegetables, we are now able to cultivate only maize during the rainy season. For, the effluents, laced with chemicals and salt, have contaminated the groundwater and the soil has become acidic. We are unable to use water from domestic wells or irrigation wells.”

Ruined fields

The refrain a Frontline team heard from farmers living in villages along the river was that they have been unable to cultivate paddy, sugarcane, turmeric, cotton and vegetables for the past 30 years because the effluents had seeped into their fields and rendered them infertile. The only crop they can raise is maize, which is used to feed cattle.

Karuppusamy said the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the wells at Anaipalayam was 5,000 mg/l while the permissible limit for drinking water was 500 mg/l and for irrigation 1,500 mg/l. The major constituents of TDS are chlorides, sulphates and bicarbonates of sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium.

According to the farmers, dyers usually discharge the effluents into the Noyyal at night through what V.P. Muthusamy, a respected public figure, called “loop lines”. They also alleged that when it rained, the units pumped effluents into streams and rivers so that they got mixed with rainwater and flowed on. They questioned the claims of the dyers that the CETPs had achieved ZLD.

State Environment Minister K.C. Karuppannan invited ridicule when he claimed in Tiruppur on September 23, 2017, that the huge amount of foam and froth that formed in the Noyyal river when it rained a few days earlier was “from the soap people used and it [soap] getting mixed with sewage from Coimbatore”. After he inspected the river with officials, he declared: “Today, there is no foam in the river. The water is clean.” Karuppannan’s remarks came after television channels and newspapers carried pictures of the river foaming up with effluents and reported that it happened when dyeing units let effluents into the river taking advantage of the rains.

A view from the banks of the Noyyal at Anaipalayam, 15 km from Tiruppur town, made the gravity of the situation clear to the Frontline team on October 22, 2017. The river was nothing but a stagnant pool of effluents. A. Eswaran, who owns a coconut grove on the banks of the river, is a dejected man. He said: “We drank the water from this river, bathed on its banks, cooked our food and cultivated our crops using its water. Thirty years ago, we could see several varieties of fish in the river at a depth of just five feet. The water was so pellucid.” Fish such as silebi , vavva , keluthi , vilangu and valai were found in the Noyyal then. But only meesai meen (fish with the moustache) could be found now, he said.

Eswaran added: “The water is jet black in colour. If we eat the fish from the river, we fall sick. The effluents go deep into the riverbed and contaminate the groundwater. Stone slabs used for washing clothes get corroded. Shovels rust. Iron crowbars become powdery.” His son E. Karthick was distraught that even the coconut trees in their grove were not healthy. The yield has come down. The trees are growing thin and the fronds have shrivelled up. “It is the income from the coconut trees that gave me my education,” Karthick said.

Karuppusamy, who is determined to get the river cleaned up, said: “The cotton yield has gone down from 15 quintals an acre [one acre is 0.4 hectare] to five quintals. There is no cultivation at all for 2 km on either side of the river for about 90 km. Fertile agricultural land has become unproductive.” His farm has three irrigation wells, with electricity connection and pump sets. “However, we are unable to use the water from the wells because it has chemicals and a lot of salt,” Karuppusamy said.

Eight kilometres away, R. Devi, who was sitting in the spacious forecourt of her home in the historic village of Kodumanal, was despondent. Her home and fields are located about 3 km from the Orathupalayam dam, called the Noyyal Orathupalayam Reservoir Project (NORP), in Erode district. The dam is built across the Noyyal at a scenic place and there is tranquillity all around. A board at the entrance gives various details about the dam, which is maintained by the Water Resources Division of the Public Works Department (PWD), Tamil Nadu government. The reservoir is 2.29 km long; it has six sluices; it covers a water spread of 423 hectares and its capacity is 616 million cubic feet. Its total ayacut is about 12,000 acres.

On October 23, 2017, the Orathupalayam reservoir presented a sorry spectacle. Instead of storing water for irrigating fields, the dam had big pools of effluents, with hyacinth spread all over them. On the other side, a stream of effluents emerged from the sluices. The riverbed itself was full of mesquite bushes.

At the dam, two elderly persons, R.P. Murugan and C. Valapuraan, who were using long tackles to catch fish in the stream of effluents, looked crestfallen. “We could not catch even a single fish although we have been fishing for a long time,” Murugan said. Valapuraan asked: “What is the use of building this dam [if water is not stored in it]? The dyeing units have destroyed our agriculture. We used to grow paddy, ragi, kambu and sugarcane. Nothing grows now. They wither after sprouting. Vellamai [agriculture] does not prosper because chemicals are discharged into the Noyyal’s waters. Officials claim that the water is being filtered. But we do not know what they do.”

Farmers say that the PWD has not been storing water in the Orathupalayam, Muthur and Aatrupalayam dams for about 10 years because the Madras High Court had ruled that effluents from the textile dyeing units should not be discharged into the Noyyal. Instead of storing the water in these three dams, the PWD allowed rainwater, mixed with effluents, to flow into the Cauvery in Noyyal village.

Said Devi: “What is the use of the Orathupalayam dam if it cannot store water? It is a waste. When will the dyeing units achieve ZLD and when will water be stored in the Orathapalayam dam?” She showed us the dry wells in her homestead. The situation is so dire that her family has built a sump with a capacity of 5,000 litres to store water. She buys water to fill the sump, paying Rs.900 each time.

“We had such a good supply of clean water to drink and irrigate our fields. All the wells in the village have fallen into disuse. They have a high content of salt and other chemicals. Agriculture has come a cropper,” Devi said.

Wells unusable

V.P. Muthusamy (65), who was president of the Primary Agricultural Cooperative Credit Bank at Uthukuli for 15 years and lives in Vengalapalayam village, 2 km from Kodumanal, said hundreds of acres of land around Kodumanal and Vengalapalayam remained barren because farmers were no longer able to cultivate paddy, sugarcane, turmeric and cotton. Besides, people suffered from skin ailments, nervous disorders and stomach ache from using the “chemical water” in the wells, he alleged. “We are fighting for our survival. No dyeing unit should be allowed to exist on the banks of the Noyyal. No unit anywhere should be allowed to pump effluents into the river.”

Chinnamma Ponnusamy, who was grazing cattle at Parapalayam, said a big pond called Nanjarayan Kulam, also known as Sarkar Periyapalayam tank, had become useless because dyeing units at Poyampalayam were illegally pumping effluents into the Nallaru stream, which flowed into the pond. Municipal sewage was also let into the pond. “The water stinks. Cattle refuse to drink the water. Cattle do not conceive. If at all they do, the pregnancy does not last.” She was unable to sleep at night because of the burgeoning mosquito population in the pond, she said.

In adjacent Koolipalayam, a farm worker, C. Velusamy, also said cattle refused to drink the polluted water in ponds and streams. The water in the wells had become salty. “It has been like this for the past 25 years,” he said. “We used to cultivate kambu, corn, ragi, turmeric, bananas and vegetables. Nothing grows now. We raise maize only when it rains.”

While an informed estimate says that Tiruppur district has 758 textile dyeing units, the Dyers’ Association of Tiruppur (DAT) says it has 500 members. There are 18 CETPs in the district. Depending on the capacity of a CETP, a certain number of dyeing units within a radius of 2 km are affiliated to it. For instance, the CETP at Arulpuram has 12 dyeing units as members. These 12 units send their effluents by a pipeline to the CETP, where it is converted into reusable water. The units receive this water by another pipeline for reuse. Besides the CETPs, there are about 60 Individual ETPs (IETPs). Large dyeing units have their own IETPs.

Proof that the CETPs have not achieved ZLD is available in the memorandum that the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 7, 2015. In that memorandum, she admitted that the CETPs “have still not been fully upgraded to ensure zero liquid discharge due to lack of financial assistance and most of them are operating between 30 and 70 per cent of installed capacity”. This despite her government giving “top priority” to the issue of effluent treatment in the textile industry, she claimed. She, therefore, requested Modi to “intervene personally and arrange for the release of Rs.200 crore as special grant to complete” the CETPs and “to achieve” the ZLD. In another memorandum she gave Modi on June 14, 2016, she admitted again that the CETPs “are still not fully functional due to lack of crucial further financial support”. On December 19, 2016, the then Chief Minister, O. Panneerselvam, repeated what Jayalalithaa had said: that the CETPs “are still not fully functional due to lack of crucial, further financial support”.

What has lent weight to the farmers’ allegations is that a study done by the Department of Geology, Anna University, Chennai, found that the Cauvery river deposited a huge amount of chemicals such as sodium chloride, bicarbonate and magnesium in the Bay of Bengal because of the industrial effluents and sewage that flowed into it from the Noyyal and the Amaravathi. Elango Lakshmanan, Head of the department, and R. RamyaPriya, PhD scholar in the department who did the study, published the findings in Environmental Earth Sciences in December 2017.

Their findings were based on the samplings they did three times a year from 2013 to 2016 during the monsoonal rains, non-monsoon and intermittent periods. There were 28 sampling points at intervals of eight to 25 km over the 800-km course of the Cauvery from Thalacauvery in Karnataka, where it originates, to Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu where it debouches into the sea. Groundwater samples were collected from wells located 300 metres from the river water sampling locations. While 15 sampling points were in Tamil Nadu, 13 were in Karnataka. “The groundwater quality was found to have deteriorated around the region of the confluence” of the Noyyal and the Amaravathi with the Cauvery (at Keezhakuthuvitapalayam and Sriramasamudram respectively), Lakshmanan said, indicating possible contamination because of effluents.

Lakshmanan said: “The Cauvery has the highest amount of TDS per square kilometre area when compared with other south Indian rivers such as the Godavari and the Krishna. It carries 76.9 tonnes of chemical load per square kilometre in a year into the Bay of Bengal while the Krishna and the Godavari carry only 37 tonnes and 67.2 tonnes” ( Deccan Chronicle ). Samplings done by Lakshmanan and RamyaPriya found groundwater in 11 out of 15 sampling points in Tamil Nadu unsuitable for drinking. The 15 points included Sriramasamudram and Keezhakuthuvitapalayam.

Said RamyaPriya: “The groundwater samples collected in Erode and Karur districts showed that the water was not suitable for drinking and, in some areas, it had deteriorated so much that it was not suitable for irrigation, too.”

The study concludes that the “higher chemical load” of the Cauvery was from geological conditions and anthropogenic activities. The latter included run-off from agricultural landscapes and discharge from industries and sewage treatment plants. “It is, therefore, necessary to stringently enforce the existing norms for the discharge of the treated effluents by the industries and townships along the river so as to reduce the chemicals contributed by the anthropogenic sources,” the study says.

Effluents have laid to waste a fantastic network of infrastructure, built to a plan, on the Noyyal river to irrigate lakhs of acres. The network includes dams, check dams, irrigation canals and ponds/lakes, all of which are interlinked. Twenty-eight check dams have been built on the Noyyal, including the ones at Mannarai, Kasipalayam, Valankulam, Aatrupalayam, Anaipalayam, Kaathankanni Kulam and Manikkapuram. During the rainy season, when water flows in the Noyyal, it is stored in the check dams. From the check dams and the dams at Orathupalayam, Muthur and Aatrupalayam, the stored water flows through a network of irrigation canals to ponds such as Nanjarayan Kulam, Valankulam, Kaathankanni Kulam, Periya Kulam and Chinna Kulam, and from the ponds, the water flows through irrigation channels to the fields.

Check dams broken

Paradoxically, the farmers alleged, the PWD had broken several check dams to prevent effluents mixed with rainwater from being stored in them. This enabled the emulsion to flow on unhindered in the river until it mingled with the Cauvery. Since the big dams and the check dams did not store water, the irrigation canals and the ponds went dry. Thus, only the rain-fed crop, maize, was cultivated.

What happened at Kaathankanni Kulam is edifying. After PWD officials broke the check dam there in 2005, water stopped flowing into the pond through an irrigation canal. When the Frontline team reached the pond on October 23, 2017, it was dry. Its water spread of 400 acres had turned into a jungle of mesquite bushes. The farmers there tried to rebuild the check dam with boulders but officials prevented them from doing so, they claim. It was with difficulty that we reached the check dam, trudging through garbage mounds and climbing up slippery banks. There were big boulders lying in the check dam, signs of self-help by local farmers. An emulsion of effluents, looking blue-black in colour, was flowing over the check dam. Muthusamy was angry that “PWD has not spent even 10 paise in the last 15 years in maintaining the check dam.”

N. Eswaran (59), a farmer who owns land adjacent to the Kaathankanni Kulam, summed up the situation: “Until the 1980s, we could cultivate paddy twice a year because there is clay here. Paddy grows well in clayey soil. Besides, we could raise turmeric, cotton and ragi. After the effluents in the river percolated into the soil, there is only chemical water here and the soil is boiling. The crops wither. The coconut trees do not give much yield.” Eswaran said. Although there is water in the wells, it cannot be used for agriculture. He cultivates maize only when it rains.

At Pudhu Naatrayan Kovil, 10 km from Uthukuli railway station, a bridge has been built across the Noyyal. On the riverbed are a big, ancient well, a pump house and an abandoned ground-level bridge. They were built in the pre-Independence era when water was pumped from the well and taken through a pipeline to Uthukuli railway station to cater for the passengers. The well, the pump house, the pipeline and the old bridge have fallen into disuse because of effluents in the Noyyal. The railway station no longer receives water from the river. The issue gained traction when farmers began a legal battle against the dyeing industries in the 1990s. They filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court, praying for a direction to the dyeing and bleaching units to stop discharging effluents into the Noyyal on the grounds that the TDS in the groundwater and the irrigation water was beyond permissible limits.

Courts’ rulings

The High Court ruled that the units should discharge only treated effluents, but their owners violated the directive. So the Noyyal River Ayacutdars Protection Association filed a writ petition in the High Court in 2003. The court ruled that the dyeing units should achieve ZLD. Their owners accepted the ZLD norms but did not implement them ( The Hindu , January 28, 2013).

The Tiruppur Dyeing Factory Owners’ Association appealed against the order in the Supreme Court. In its order in October 2009, the apex court asked the dyers to ensure that neither the Noyyal river nor the Orathupalayam dam was polluted by effluents from their factories.

A bench comprising the then Chief Justice of India, K.G. Balakrishnan, and Justice B.S. Chauhan said a large number of farmers had suffered because of the pollution caused by the dyers and the farmers “cannot cultivate any crop on the said land....” The judges added: “They [the dyers] cannot escape the responsibility to meet the expenses of reversing the ecology. They are bound to meet the expenses for removing the sludge from the river and also for cleaning them. The principles of ‘polluters pay’ and ‘precautionary principle’ have to be read with the doctrine of ‘sustainable development’.” The bench ordered the dyers to pay compensation to the affected farmers for the degradation of the ecology caused by them. They asked the dyers to comply with the earlier directions of the Madras High Court ( The Hindu , October 8, 2009).

When the dyers and the CETPs did not comply with ZLD norms as stipulated by the High Court, the Noyyal River Ayacutdars Protection Association filed contempt petitions against PWD and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) officials. It alleged wilful disobedience of the High Court orders and pointed out that the pollution of the Noyyal river had only increased ( The Hindu , January 29, 2011).

The First Bench of the Madras High Court, comprising Chief Justice M.Y. Eqbal and Justice T.S. Sivagnanam, ordered on January 28, 2011, the closure of all dyeing and bleaching industries and CETPs in the Tiruppur area. Electricity supply to them was to be cut. They made it clear that the CETPs and the IETPs should not be allowed to operate unless they achieved ZLD, as per the High Court directions of 2006.

It was a matter of concern that despite the court’s specific direction that the dyeing units should achieve ZLD, they had not achieved it and continued to discharge effluents into the Noyyal, Chief Justice Eqbal and Justice Sivagnanam said. Yet, the TNPCB had failed to shut down these units, they observed. Only after the High Court took up the matter, they said, did the TNPCB close some units.

The judges found a report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, “alarming and shocking”. According to the report, one sample of water from the Noyyal had a TDS of 5,660 parts per million (ppm). That was a prima facie indication that the pollution in the river had not stopped, the bench said. Today, almost seven years after this landmark judgment, nothing has changed on the ground in Tiruppur, Erode and Karur districts. The dyeing units, which have access to CETPs and IETPs, claim that they have achieved ZLD, but the Noyyal river continues to carry a heavy load of effluents. There is no let-up in the damage to farmland.

River of garbage

It is a terrible situation in Mannarai in the heart of Tiruppur town. Here, the Noyyal, which is more than 45 metres wide, has now shrunk to about 4.5 m. The river is filled with effluents, garbage, construction rubble, carcasses of animals, and so on. A row of earth movers, lined up on the riverbed, had removed about 700 tonnes of garbage from the river a fortnight earlier but mounds of garbage still remained on the riverbed. Effluents from the dyeing units were flowing into the river near a check dam.

Muthusamy said: “The river is unrecognisable here and in other parts of Tiruppur. This stretch is entirely filled up with effluents from the dyeing units, garbage from Tiruppur, rotten fish, rancid meat, hospital waste, construction materials, and so on.” This has had a terrible fallout year after year. When it rains heavily, the water in the river, unable to flow freely, floods the hundreds of tenements that have come up on its banks.

S.P. Jothimani and S. Chandrasekaran, two activists determined to take on the dyeing units, took us to the banks of Veerapandi Odai (“odai” in Tamil means a stream) at Sangilipallam, a ward of the Tiruppur municipal corporation. On one bank of the stream are a few big dyeing units, with their chimneys painted in blue. On the other bank are pipelines, one carrying effluents from the units to the nearby CETP for treatment and another bringing the reusable water from the CETPs to the units. The pipelines have aeration chambers with numbers.

Veerapandi Odai, however, exists only in name. Lying everywhere on its bed and banks are tyres, garbage, bags of dyeing salt and caked-up sodium metabisulphite, and pigs roam everywhere. “This problem [of dyeing units letting effluents into the Noyyal, rivulets and streams] has been plaguing us from 1986. At night, the dyeing units will quietly open the shutters of the pipeline and let the effluents into the odai ,” Jothimani alleged.

Jammanai Odai is said to be the most affected stream in Tiruppur. The stream bed has been converted into a mud road, with cars, vans and scooters traversing it. On one bank is a row of dyeing units and on the other is the CETP at Chinnakarai. The bank with the dyeing units presented a horrible sight with blocks of caked-up chemical dyes dumped there. There were heaps of dyeing salt amidst clumps of korai grass (a thick variety of grass used to make mats).

“When it rains, these chemical dyes dissolve and seep into the groundwater. Only korai grass will grow, feeding on this water mixed with effluents. Cattle do not chew this grass. No other vegetation grows here,” said Chandrasekaran. Dry agricultural fields and a dry Nanjarayan Kulam greet us at Koolipalayam and Parapalayam, two adjacent villages situated a few kilometres from Tiruppur. A rivulet called Kousika Nadhi, which branches off from the Noyyal, feeds water into Nanjarayan Kulam, which has a water spread of 440 acres. Its ayacut is 2,000 acres. The Nallaru river also empties into the lake. Today, Nanjarayan Kulam is polluted by effluents flowing in from the Kousika Nadhi and the Nallaru. After some difficulty, the Frontline team located what it was looking for: buildings with filtration chambers.

The small complex comprises rooms with filtration chambers, a narrow, cemented canal with lattices to stop the garbage from reaching the filtration chambers and another canal to let out filtered water into Nanjarayan Kulam. Boards announce that it is a project of the Water Resources Division of the PWD, financed by the Environment Protection and Renewable Energy Fund. The project’s cost is Rs.400 lakh and it aims at “restoring” the Sarkar Periapalayam tank and “treating” the water that reaches it. But the complex is yet to be commissioned although the work was completed 45 days earlier, said residents of Parapalayam.

A different kind of board, erected by the TNPCB, stands at Kasipalayam in Tiruppur town, next to a broad bridge built across the Noyyal. The board urges people “to grow trees” and “receive rains”. It sounds a warning too: “Garbage should not be dumped on the banks of the river. Those who violate this will be punished.” As if to mock this warning, effluents could be seen flowing in the river. There is a check dam with effluents flowing around it. There are pipelines and sprawling dyeing industries on one bank of the Noyyal here. These pipelines are connected to three CETPs on the other bank, if aeration chambers with markings are any indication.

A.C. Velusamy (50), a farmer from Arugampalayam, alleged it was through “loop lines” that the dyeing industries let the effluents into the Noyyal at night, especially on Saturdays. C. Ramasamy from Manikkapuram alleged that although illegal pipelines laid by the dyeing units did exist, the government did not want to find out where they were located.

When it rained, the dyeing units let out effluents in various colours into the river along with the rainwater, he alleged. “Is it enough if the owners of these units earn their livelihood? Agricuture has been ruined. The lakes have all dried up. Do not these effluents affect several lakhs of farmers, their fields, groundwater and cattle?” he asked.

R. Devi said the same thing. “In Tiruppur, the proprietors of dyeing units live in swanky bungalows with swimming pools and they drink the Siruvani river water. How many lakhs of acres of farmland have we lost and how many thousands of farmers have lost their livelihood, all in the name of the foreign exchange earned by the dyeing units?” she asked.

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