DEAD RIVER’S REVENGE
Barren fields, closed factories, lakhs without a livelihood. A poisoned Noyyal has spelt disaster for Tirupur, a booming town caught in a people versus pollution war
Binoy Valsan | TNN
Six months ago, Tirupur was throbbing with activity. Today, the Tamil Nadu town — a major knitwear export hub — is steeped in gloom. And a river runs through it.
The river, Noyyal, has turned poisonous. For years, the town’s dyeing units had been pumping effluents into it. The toxic water eventually reached the agricultural fields of western Tamil Nadu, rendering them barren. A high court order in January led to the closure of almost all the city’s 654 units. Now, over three lakh workers are paying for the sins of their employers.
“The closure of the dyeing units has crippled the entire economy of the city. Right from the roadside tea-stall to the departmental and textile stores, there is a drastic dip in customers,” says R Annadurai, convenor, Tirupur Industrial Protection Committee.
The tragedy of Tirupur, though, began years ago — and it was first felt by the 1.5 lakh farmers of over 100 villages of Tirupur, Erode and Karur districts. A P Kandasamy, a farmer from Athipalayam village, used to be proud of his lush, green 24 acres of paddy, sugarcane and coconut trees. That was before the dyeing units began to flourish in neighbouring Tirupur and started pumping effluents into the river. Today, the vast barren fields leading up to his house bear only a few patches of shrubs, grass and hollow tree stumps — skeletal remains of an ecological disaster that has struck the region.
The past decade has been a desperate struggle for farmers as agriculture suddenly became unviable. “Not even cattle can drink the river’s water. How did they allow such an atrocious act to be committed? Nothing will grow on this soil,” laments AM Thangamuthu, a farmer from the area. Thousands like him in this belt were forced to migrate to the cities to seek employment as unskilled labour.
The misery of the farmers coincided with the rapid rise of Tirupur as a knitwear hub. As orders poured in from Europe and the US, garment manufacturers started working overtime to maximize profits. Pollution norms were sidelined as rapid economic growth took centrestage. Sources in the Pollution Control Board (PCB) now admit the units used to regularly pump toxic water into the Noyyal at night.
It was in Kandasamy’s house that the farmers finally decided to stand up to the might of the garment barons. In 2003, a writ petition was filed before the Madras High Court on behalf of their organization, the Noyyal River Ayyacutdar Protection Association (NRAPA). Eight years and numerous appeals later, the court on January 28 ruled in their favour and instructed the state government to ensure the closure of polluting dyeing units with immediate effect. The farmers have hailed it as a landmark ruling. “It will strengthen other cases where farmers are taking on industry over sensitive issues like pollution,” says Kandasamy.
The court also came down heavily on the then DMK state government and issued contempt notices to PCB officials for their failure to act. The total dissolved solids (TDS) in the river was found to be alarmingly high — between 5,500 ppm and 7,000 ppm. The permissible level fit for human consumption is 2,100 ppm. TDS levels as per the records maintained by the PCB always peaked during the period between October and May, the peak season for the garment sector.
Out of the 752 dyeing units registered in Tirupur, 654 were still functioning at the time of the court ruling. Action was initiated against them in February. Their power supply was disconnected and they were served with closure notices. Only nine units — with their own individual effluent treatment plants (IETPs) — were allowed to keep functioning.
The tragedy of Noyyal has since shifted from the agrarian hinterland to the epicentre of Tirupur city. Most of the workers in these units are unskilled labourers who migrated from the state’s southern districts (Madurai, Virudhunagar, Theni and Dindigul) and from Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and Jharkhand. Ironically, many of them had given up agriculture and come here to make a living. Now they have nowhere to go. “I don’t know any other job and I don’t have anyone back in my native town (Rajapalayam in Virudhunagar district). I know some people here and will try to borrow money from them to complete my children’s education,” says P Marimuthu, one of the jobless workers.
Fortunately for Tirupur, the assembly elections in April ensured the issue got top billing. The run-up to the polls witnessed several protests by local associations and citizens’ forums. There was also a move to field more than 1,000 independent candidates from Tirupur North constituency, all of whom were affected by the closure. “Our main aim is to revive the dyeing and bleaching units in the city. The economy of Tirupur has come to a grinding halt,” said Chitra, a 36-year-old tailor and mother of two after filing her poll nomination.
What next? The new government, under J Jayalalithaa, and the Union textile ministry have swung into joint action. A 12-member, high-level committee was formed on July 25 to resolve the issue. The panel is meeting in New Delhi on August 24 to discuss possible bailout plans. “The steps being taken by the chief minister and Union government officials are commendable and we are hoping that soon we will be able to revive the garment sector,” says A Sakthivel, president, Tirupur Exporters Association.
The CM has also announced an interest-free loan package of Rs 200 crore for the 20 common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) in Tirupur for upgrading their effluent treatment facilities. The authorities are currently monitoring a 90-day trial run to ensure zero liquid discharge at the Arulpuram CETP. The PCB has allowed 15 dyeing units to function at 30% capacity during the trial period. The state government has also promised immediate disbursal of a compensation package of Rs 18.38 crore to farmers affected by the pollution.
The farmers, meanwhile, are watching the developments closely. “The state government has announced some plans but because of the court ruling we believe that garment exporters will not be able to exploit Noyyal the way they did earlier,” says Kandasamy.