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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.

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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.

No city is an island: Lessons from Delhi’s odd-even experiment

The Delhi government’s 15-day odd-even initiative to contain vehicular emissions has made little or no difference to air quality in the capital, The Hindu reported last week.

The report claims that peak pollution levels during the first week of the scheme – which moved cars with odd licence plates off the streets on alternate days – are “either comparable or just slightly lower” than the high levels observed from the beginning of December.

This is not surprising. The odd-even rule wasn’t a bad idea. But the pollutants floating around in Delhi’s poisonous air are not generated by the city alone

india’s coal boom and attendant air quality fears…

can self-certification control emissions?

A high-level committee headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian has, among other things, proposed a radical overhaul of how India ensures compliance with environmental clearances. Arguing that the present system, built around physical inspection by government employees, has created a rent-seeking ‘inspector raj’, the committee — which was set up by the government to review environment-related laws — has proposed an “utmost good faith clause”… In both environmental and industry circles, there is scepticism about the proposal.

The good faith clause is built on the assumption that industry will provide data which might be used against it. In this story, I argue the system will, ergo, get gamed.

Why people fretting about Delhi’s low air quality are missing the bigger picture

In May this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that Delhi’s air quality is the worst in the world. In the months that followed this perception about Delhi’s air has strengthened further as winter smog set in the capital. This perception, however, could be incorrect. Air quality of other Indian cities and towns could be worse than Delhi’s. That is because the air quality information being generated by the state and central pollution control boards is badly flawed, and we don’t have credible information about air quality in any place other than the capital.

An updated version of the air quality story

today’s et carries an updated version of the air quality story published yesterday — the story got reworked once i got the cpcb’s answers. as things stand, its answers resolved some of the questions in the previous avatar of the story and triggered newer ones. do take a look. and, here, the q&a with the cpcb on the air quality index.

all this is a followup to a story that appeared about ten days ago — on why india’s air quality data is garbage. you must see that.