No let-off till zero discharge

December 21, 2009

A few years ago I wrote about a textile town called Pali, in Rajasthan, which had completely toxified its seasonal river Bandi with industrial discharge. Then, I said the real story was not about pollution but the anger of farmers whose agricultural lands were destroyed because of effluents, whose well water had turned poisonous, and whose fight led the town to set up the country’s first common effluent treatment plant. The question I raised was: did we know how to clean chemical pollution in water-scarce areas?

The answer still is: no. But the persistence of pollution-affected farmers is ensuring the search is on for ways out.

In 2006, with three common effluent treatment plants (cetps) in place and a city-wide system to charge cess on every bale of cloth to pay for treatment, the river Bandi was still contaminated. That year, my colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment went to Pali, travelled downstream of the dry river and collected water samples. They tested the samples at our pollution monitoring laboratory in Delhi and found high levels of toxins, even in the water of wells 50 km downstream of the town. Their analysis also showed the common effluent treatment plants were not meeting stipulated standards; there was a high concentration of heavy metals in the wastewater. My colleagues also found there existed ingenious ways to ‘beat’ the system—the treatment plants had bypass channels, allowing effluents to flow without check.

Unacceptable, said the farmers for whom we prepared the report. So government agreed the etps would be upgraded, at a cost of Rs 19 crore. Partly, the problem was not the doing of industry, but changing market preferences. When the plants were set up, cottons were in demand. Then synthetic cloth came into demand and the dying units shifted from alkaline to acidic processes. The treatment could not keep pace. The investment would now improve treatment, by changing the retention time, chemical dosing and aeration of effluents.

But the pollution did not go away. Farmers reported the water was as bad as ever. In 2007, at their request, my colleagues returned. More samples were collected; checked and analysed. The pollutants remained, as did the ‘bypass’ system. Worse, since the town’s drainage had not kept up with its industrial growth, much of the waste did not make it to the plants for treatment.

The furious farmers took the matter to court. In April 2008, the high court ruled in their favour. It asked government to set up water flow meters in every industry to measure discharge; to shut down ‘illegal’ units not connected to the effluent plants; to set up another common effluent plant for the waste for the new industries and, in all, to ensure all waste was treated completely. It was no small victory.

But pollution continues. The problem is more complex than current pollution text-books can fathom or explain. This is a region where the river has no water for most of the year. Even partially treated effluents (assuming the upgraded treatment plants meet discharge standards and no waste is bypassed) lead to pollution, because there is no water to flush it with or to clean it. The farmer association called us again. This time, my colleagues used a testing kit in the presence of farmers and industry representatives. The bypass was found. The samples showed toxins. All hell broke loose. At a public meeting, held in Pali town hall, politicians, administrators, industry and affected farmers came together to say, “industry is important but not at the cost of the pollution of our river and the suffering of farmers. Enough is enough. The answers will have to be found differently”.

The farmers do not want industry to discharge effluents into the river. They want them to treat, reuse and recycle the effluents. The court has upheld this plea, directing “the treated water may not flow into the Bandi river”. This is not an isolated instance. We have found at least three more court decisions insisting on “zero discharge or complete recovery and reuse of water discharged from factories”. One is in a town neighbouring Pali itself, called Balotra, where a similar case was fought and won. The second is in the famous textile town of Tiruppur, in Tamil Nadu, where affected farmers took the issue to court which directed, in no uncertain terms, that no treated water would be discharged into the river. The third is in the industrial town of Ludhiana, in Punjab, where the court has issued notices that “all electroplating, textile dying and bleaching units have to set up individual or collective treatment plants to achieve zero-discharge”.

The question now is to determine the next step in this pollution ladder, and if that, at all, leads to results. The fact is re-use technologies like reverse osmosis are expensive, they need high quality water as their input and, most importantly, leave behind a high amount of ‘reject’, which then has to be disposed off, somehow. In Tiruppur, the government is currently coming up with bizarre proposals to deal with the tedious reject problem. But the quest continues.

The fact is that, today, public pressure is driving industry and government to innovate, faster than they would like, to find solutions. Also, we have not even scratched the surface in finding appropriate and cost-effective technology solutions that will fit our size.

But let me not rush that way. The search is on. The farmers of Pali, Balotra, Tiruppur, and other pollution warriors, will ensure we get answers.

—Sunita Narain