On a sunny June morning, two men are spotted fishing close to the Orathupalayam dam in Erode district.
A rather ordinary act in itself, it nevertheless points to a revival of the ecosystem in and around the dam.
Orathupalayam dam, meant to serve as a reservoir for the waters of the Noyyal river, had turned into a cesspool of effluents from textile dyeing units in upstream Tiruppur district within years of its commissioning in 1992.
The reservoir came to characterise the problem of industrial pollution, an issue highlighted once again in the anti-Sterlite agitation that rocked the State recently.
The revival of the reservoir and water bodies in its vicinity is thanks to a sustained campaign by farmers and activists, involving prolonged legal battles.
Today, the adverse impact of industrial pollution on the Orathupalayam dam, about 30 km downstream from Tiruppur, appears to have been contained substantially.
A majority of the 754 textile dyeing units, which had to be closed down for one-and-a-half years following the Madras High Court order in January 2011, have since migrated to a system of zero liquid discharge (ZLD), under which over 90% of the treated waste gets recycled.
According to a document of the State Environment Department, 458 units attached to 18 common effluent treatment plants (CETP) and 95 units with individual ETPs have been permitted to operate, after establishing ZLD plants.
“In the last five-six years, the quality of water in and around the dam has improved. Fish are indeed available now,” says V. Ramasamy Gounder, a resident of Kodumanal village, three km from the dam. He has served as a farmers’ representative on the panel on Orathupalayam dam, constituted by the State government about 15 years ago.
However, he hastens to add that the present situation, despite being an improvement, is far from ideal. He points out that the clean-up has happened because the dam’s spillway shutters and river sluices are kept open permanently, preventing any storage of water. The decision not to store water will remain in force till the quality of water becomes fit for agriculture.
Notwithstanding the “resolution” of the Orathupalayam row, the problem of Noyyal pollution remains as the river continues to be used as a “dumping yard” for domestic sewage and industrial effluents.
About eight months ago, State Environment Minister K.C. Karuppannan’s observations that sought to attribute the reason for the huge amount of foam that formed in the river to the use of soap by the residents of Coimbatore attracted public derision. Yet, what cannot be glossed over is that a large volume of untreated domestic sewage is being discharged into the waterway.
After the Madras High Court came down heavily on Tiruppur units in January 2011, smaller dyeing units have sprung up on farms and private premises in Coimbatore district, says R. Raveendran, secretary of the Residents’ Awareness Association of Coimbatore. His complaint is that these units are dumping their effluents into the Noyyal or defunct borewells.
“Many of these units look innocuous and nobody even knows they exist. They dig borewells and release effluents directly into them, which is very frightening,” says Vanitha Mohan, managing trustee of Siruthuli, a non-government organisation working in the areas of afforestation, water and waste management. She adds that some of the units are located in heavily populated areas such as Selvapuram and Telungupalayam where people are dependent on groundwater.
Both Mr. Raveendran and Ms. Mohan claim that there has been no action from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) against such units. A Coimbatore-based senior official of the Board countered by saying that he has not been apprised of this problem. “We will look into it,” he adds, when pressed.
Even representatives of industry admit to the possibility of some units violating the law. But their refrain is that for the “mistakes of a few,” the entire industry should not be made to suffer.
Just as Orathupalayam has become the face of industrial pollution in the western districts, it is the Palar river in the north which exemplifies the flip side of industrialisation.
“The pollution of the Palar, which is the lifeline of northern Tamil Nadu, began in the early 1970s when leather industries shifted to chrome tanning from eco-friendly vegetable tanning. Untreated effluents were let into the river from Vaniyambadi to Ambur and Vellore. The pollution continued for the next two to three decades,” says Jamuna Thyagarajan, president of the Vellore Palar Protection Association.
Consequently, groundwater in Vellore district, a hub for leather industries, got highly polluted, rendering both the soil and water unusable for agriculture. This evoked protests from people and farmers. On a petition filed by the Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum, the Supreme Court, in August 1996, delivered a landmark judgement, invoking the principle of “polluter pays.”
The establishment of the Loss of Ecology Authority and the payment of compensation to affected people followed but there appears to be no end to the problem of pollution.
A study conducted by the Anna University about three years ago only confirms how groundwater in most places in Ambur remains unsuitable for drinking, the reason being “high concentration of major ions.”
Carried out by L. Elango and G. Kanagaraj of the university’s Department of Geology between July 2015 (prior to the onset of the northeast monsoon) and January 2016 (post-monsoon) on hydrogeochemical processes and the impact of tanning industries, the study was based on an analysis of 30 groundwater samples taken from open and shallow wells.
The saline water mixing index indicated salinity in most of the groundwater samples due to tannery effluents. Besides, the level of chromium in groundwater exceeded the norms of the Bureau of Indian Standards (0.05 mg/litre) in over 50% of the observed wells.
The researchers suggested that the effluent treatment plants be equipped to remove the salinity of waste water through reverse osmosis and rainfall recharge structures be installed to improve groundwater recharge.
But the leather industry is of the view that the ZLD system in place has made a difference. “We were asked to achieve ZLD in 2008 and complete the works by 2011. Today, there is no place where effluents are discharged or stagnate. The quality of groundwater has improved in the last four to five years as TDS levels have reduced,” asserts Iqbal Ahmed, managing director of VANITEC.
Ranipet, about 70 km east of Ambur, too has a litany of pollution woes. Here, the pollutant is chromium-bearing solid waste. Residents have been waging a battle against groundwater pollution for more than two decades. Nearly 2.27 lakh tonnes of solid waste was left behind after the closure of Tamil Nadu Chromates and Chemicals Limited in 1995. The result: widespread contamination of groundwater, hitting farming operations.
L.C. Mani, Vellore district president of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, says several water bodies such as Kodathappu Eri, Karai Eri, Vanabadi Eri, Puliyanthangal Eri and Thandalam Eri are polluted. Around 800 acres of cultivable land has been affected.
As plans to remove the chromium waste from the site are yet to take off, groundwater pollution remains Ranipet’s bane.
In the southern part of the State, Thoothukudi, which made headlines in recent weeks, has been home to many industrial units, concentrated about 8 km west of the “pearl city.”
In a study done in January 2017, contamination patches were observed in the SIPCOT (State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu) area, Meelavittan, Therku Verapandiyapuram, Pandarampatti, Swaminatham, Puthur Pandiyapuram, Sankaraperi and Kuttudankadu (Puddukodai area), courtesy industrial waste leaching and percolating into the aquifer.
Based upon 60 groundwater samples to identify geochemical sources and contamination in Thoothukudi, the study revealed, among other things, traces of lead in various foods, notably fish.
“Lead is harmful even in small amounts,” says Selvam, assistant professor in geology, V.O. Chidambaram College, Thoothukudi.
The Tamirabharani river, an important source of drinking water for Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Virudhunagar districts, too has not been spared by industrial pollution.
Some industrial units, including a few paper mills in Tirunelveli, have been accused of releasing their untreated waste into the river.
Remediation is possible
Be it the west or the north, the process of industrialisation has caused environmental degradation. But, the Tiruppur example, with all its shortcomings, does show that a similar problem anywhere in the State can be tackled, if not overcome.
Mr. Gounder of Erode is hopeful of resuming farming operations if the authorities, industry and civil society pay attention to the problem of industrial pollution and find lasting solutions. Only then would there be sustainable development.
“It is doable,” the Kodumanal farmer says optimistically.
( With inputs from Serena Josephine in Vellore, J. Praveen Paul Joseph in Thoothukudi and P. Sudhakar in Tirunelveli)