fractured earth

Can the courts save India’s rivers from pollution? Tirupur shows the answer is no

the second — and concluding — part of our trip down the Noyyal (see previous post).

A slum sprawled on one side of the river. In the distance, a factory belched smoke in the air. The riverbed was overrun with weeds and crammed with plastic bags that were half buried into the earth. An earthmover scooped gunk from an open drain and dumped it on top of the debris. The river itself was a thin trickle of black.

Welcome to Tirupur, an industrial city in central Tamil Nadu, where India’s judicial system tried – and failed – to save a river.

The Noyyal is a small river which starts in the western ghats and flows 170 kilometres to merge into the Cauvery. It passes through Tirupur, where factories have been emptying out effluents in its waters ever since a textile hub came up in the 1970s.

After the state failed to protect the river, in 1996, the Supreme Court intervened. It ordered dyeing units in Tirupur to shut down if they could not stop polluting the river. Fifteen years later, in 2011, the Madras High Court followed up by applying the “Polluter Pays” principle, directing the dyeing factories to become zero discharge units by recycling waste water and pumping it back for reuse.

Since then, the larger units in Tirupur have set up their own effluent treatment plants. The smaller ones have come together to set up Common Effluent Treatment Plants. In all, 18 CETPs are operating here.

But the river still does not look clean.

The first part of this series flagged how the state administration in Tamil Nadu has been unable to protect the Noyyal. That story traced the river’s journey from its source till Coimbatore.

This story looks at what happens to the Noyyal after it leaves Comibatore, and why even judicial remedies to protect the river have failed.

How a river in Tamil Nadu turned into a sewage canal

A narrow little rivulet splashes down, bouncing from boulder to boulder as it descends the rockface. It pauses to catch its breath in a tiny pool limned by trees, before rushing downhill again, merging with other streams to form a small river called the Noyyal.

For centuries, the river’s 170-km course used to take it past the farms, forests and villages of Tamil Nadu, before sinking it into the embrace of the great Cauvery.

In recent decades, this landscape has changed.

Noyyal’s basin – the area drained by the river and its tributaries – has become one of the densest urban landscapes in the state. The cities of Coimbatore and Tirupur, which are located here, are now among India’s leading industrial clusters. The basin has seen an exponential rise in population. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of people living here doubled from 19.5 lakhs to 42 lakhs. With more people settling in the cities, the urban population mushroomed from 9 lakhs to 33 lakhs. Such a large number of people moved to the cities that the rural population actually fell.

Spikes in population, urbanisation and industrial activity bring with them questions of sustainability.

At Kovai Kutralam in Kachimanathi Reserve Forest, one of the starting points of Noyyal’s journey, the water is so clear, you can scoop it up to drink.

What happens as it flows ahead?

The first of a two part series on the river.

What the people defending former coal secretary HC Gupta are not telling you

Last week, former Coal Secretary HC Gupta surprised everyone in the Central Bureau of Investigation Court. He intended to “face trial from inside the jail” and withdraw the personal bond he had submitted in order to obtain bail, he told Special Judge Bharat Parashar. Gupta is an accused in several coal block allocation cases relating to corruption. On being asked why, Gupta said he was in financial difficulties, struggling to even engage a lawyer.

The news triggered a minor furore – especially amongst the bureaucracy. The IAS Association announced it would meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to communicate, as the Indian Express said, the duress officers will be “under if “honest decisions” are construed as mala fide.” “There can be errors of judgement in the course of work,” said secretary of the Association, Sanjay Bhoosreddy. “But that does not mean there is any criminal intent or quid pro quo.” Subsequently, news reports and op-eds – like this and this and this – also warned that the court’s decision to charge Gupta might paralyse the bureaucracy.

On the whole, it seems that both the IAS Association and the people defending Gupta need refresher courses in both accountability and the captive coal block allocation scam.

while in ET, my friends john samuel raja, avinash singh and i had taken a close look at the coal scam. it was educative then. and it is educative now. at that time, we got to see some of the processes damaging india up close. right now, it is a window seat to a different process — on the contest between those wanting to deliver justice and those trying to thwart it.

A tsunami of debt is building up in Tamil Nadu – and no one knows where it is headed

G Venkatasubramanian trots out some astonishing numbers. Over the last 15 years, he and his fellow researchers at Pondicherry’s French Institute have been studying debt bondage among families in 20 villages in Tamil Nadu. Half of these settlements are in the coastal district of Cuddalore, and the others are in the adjoining district of Villupuram.

Their study is throwing up some puzzling changes in how much these families borrow – and how. In 2001, the average annual income of these families was Rs 16,000. Average debt was Rs 10,000. Come 2016, annual income has risen five-fold to Rs 80,000. Average debt, however, stands at Rs 250,000. This is a 25-fold increase.

How these families borrow has changed too. Earlier, only land-owning communities – Mudaliars, Chettiars or Reddiars – lent money. But now, said Venkatsubramanian, the Scheduled Castes are increasingly lending and borrowing among themselves. “A family will borrow Rs 50,000 and lend Rs 25,000,” he said. At the same time, communities that once looked down upon moneylending are entering the trade. The Nadars of southern Tamil Nadu, for instance, have begun lending in central and northern parts of the state.

the kabuki of environmental governance

in which i write about the environment ministry’s decision to do away with the Rs 200 crore fine on the adani group’s port and sez complex at mundra.

this is a process of forgetting, i say. do read.

Why Tamil Nadu’s fisherfolk can no longer find fish

“What did you catch?” Alagairi Madhivanan shouts across to the fisherman in a small boat to our left. The young man stops scanning the net he has just pulled out of the lagoon, turns towards us and says, “Five fishes.”

His answer echoes what Madhivanan has been telling me over the past hour as his small fibre-bodied boat nosed through Tamil Nadu’s Pichavaram mangroves – it’s getting harder and harder to find fish. As recently as a decade ago, fishermen like him in this part of the state, midway between Pondicherry and the fishing town of Nagapattinam, made one fishing trip every day. They would head out before dawn and come back with the day’s catch by half-past eight.

But now, Madhivanan does two trips each day – two hours in the morning and another two in the evening. His fellow fishermen – the ones with bigger boats – are staying out as long as three days looking for fish. It is the same story in other parts of Tamil Nadu. Travel further north to the fishing port of Kasimedu near Chennai and you will find fisherfolk who stay out at sea for as long as a week. Head south to Nagapattinam and you will hear that fishermen, in the quest for catch, are sailing into Sri Lankan waters, even at the risk of landing up in jail.

The controversy over ‘Udta Punjab’ shows how the state government has completely lost the plot

Hope has finally arrived.

At a time when the Centre and the State governments in India are proving entirely unequal to the responsibilities placed before them, Punjab has decided to step up and show the way.

Late last week, the state government – run by the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party – managed to fix the state’s much-discussed drug problem. Not by exposing the mafia which brings and sells drugs to its people but by cracking down on a Mumbai film about the state’s drugs problem. Acting on what appear to be instructions from the top, the Central Board of Film Certification, which runs a wildly successful employment guarantee programme for the country’s most regressive minds, told producers of Udta Punjab to remove any references to Punjab, its towns and cities, and elections to be in their film, in a list of 89 cuts.

In the process, the Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party – both of which look increasingly nervous as elections draw near – appear to have found an answer to the state’s drugs problem that Goebbels would have been proud of. If no one talks about drugs, they seem to think, maybe the people of Punjab will vote them back in.

As thoughts go, that is delusional…

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