Hosiery havoc

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MUCH of the groundwater in Tamil Nadu's Tirupur town is unusable, having been contaminated by the effluents that the town's prolific hosiery industry churns out. But now, a scheme to set up common effluent treatment plants is getting underway after crossing many hurdles.

Tirupur, which has some of the most expensive real estate in India, has 2,000-odd hosiery units packed into its congested confines. Of these, 600 are dyeing units and 300 bleaching units. Each 100 kg of yarn dyed requires 23,000 litres of water. Each unit guzzles between 50,000-70,000 litres of water daily; some of the larger units consume 4 lakh litres daily.

Since only about 20 per cent of the water used is used in processing, a whopping 60 to 80 million litres of wastewater containing dyes, salt, starch and other impurities is spewed out each day. Barring a handful, all the units discharge their untreated effluents into the river Noyyal flowing through the town. Says S G Raghavan, a partner in a dyeing unit, "In Tirupur, if you dig a borewell, you will get red, blue or green water."

In 1989, concerned with the mounting pollution, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) advised the units to treat the effluents before discharging them. Says V Ganesan, joint chief environmental engineer, TNPCB, "Many of these units are small, even tiny, operating from just a garage. The cost of individually treating effluents would be prohibitive for them. So we suggested a common effluent treatment plant (CETP)."

The suggestion was enthusiastically received. B Sivanandan, owner of Sivananda Colouring Works, the town's oldest dyeing unit, says, "Either we overtake this problem of pollution, or it overtakes us." The Tirupur Effluent Treatment Company was formed by members of the Tirupur Dyers' Association (TDA) to set up 4 cetps. The TNPCB estimated the plants to cost Rs 10 crore and considered a 10 per cent raise in its funds; 25 per cent each was promised as subsidy by the Centre and the state, the remaining coming as loans from various sources. By 1992, the company had managed to collect the required Rs 1 crore from its members.

But then, the state government revised its industrial policy. The company was now entitled to a subsidy of only Rs 50 lakh, forcing several units to reconsider their participation. The project was jeopardised. Ultimately, after parleys with the Union ministry of environment and forest, a decision was taken to divide the town municipality into 10 zones and have 1 cetp for each, to be run by a different company, at a total cost of Rs 30 crore.

Tirupur now has 10 such companies, each with a minimum of 60 units as members. The TDA coordinates to ensure that a common strategy is adopted. Each company paid Rs 60,000, while the bleaching units paid Rs 30,000. "Subsequent payments will depend on the volume of effluents from each unit," says N Kandaswami, president, tda. Defaulters were "kindly warned". The TNPCB was asked to ensure that defaulting units were shut down.

But there have been murmurs of dissent from some smaller units who find the payments a little steep. Meanwhile, the companies are steaming ahead. "Land for the cetps has been bought and technical consultants have begun their work to decide upon a suitable treatment process to remove the colour, suspended matter, organic impurities and dissolved solids from the effluents," says Samiappan, secretary, tda. Tirupur can still have its clothes on and sit on pretty ground.