Govt moves to curb pollution by textile units. But it may do more harm than good

Photo: Shoumik Biswas/Catch News

Govt moves to curb pollution by textile units. But it may do more harm than good

Ashwin Aghor @CatchNews

To curb the massive pollution caused by the textile industry, the government has directed it to adhere to the 'Zero Liquid Discharge' (ZLD) norm. ZLD essentially means that a factory recycles all effluents and doesn't release even a drop into the environment.

The draft notification issued in this regard appears strict, but a closer study reveals that it could do more harm than good, to both the industry and the environment. Perhaps, this is a consequence of the environment ministry's zeal to get quick results.

Not surprisingly, even before the policy gets legal standing, it's facing strong criticism.

What's in the draft notification?

  • All textile units - dyers, cotton or wool processors, integrated factories - that generate over 25 kilo litre effluents daily must install Zero Liquid Discharge effluent treatment plants.

  • Water recycled by these plants will be reused. The units won't be allowed to draw groundwater except to make up for the shortfall and for drinking, as assessed by the respective State Pollution Control Board or the Pollution Control Committee.

  • After the notification is approved, the units will have 30 months to set up the treatment plants. They won't be allowed to operate if they fail to comply.

  • The units that already have effluent treatment plants will be required to make them ZLD compliant.

  • Until upgraded to ZLD, the existing treatment plants will follow the "effluent discharge standards as specified in the Environment Protection Rules, 1986".

What's the need for ZLD?

  • The textile industry is a heavy polluter, so much so the courts have had to close some factories, including at Vapi in Gujarat and on the banks of Noyyal river in Tamil Nadu in 2011.

  • Mostly, the pollution is caused by untreated or partially-treated effluents from the units released into streams, rivers, oceans. It destroys the water quality of these water bodies and also contaminates aquifers.

  • Gujarat's Vapi Industrial Area, which comprised 22 textile units, for example, all but destroyed the area's ecosystem before it was closed down in 2011.

  • Several NGOs are waging legal battles to stop the industry from polluting their environs. Vanashakti, for example, is fighting a case in the National Green Tribunal to stop pollution of Ulhasand and Waldhuni rivers near Mumbai.

  • The draft notification is seen as the first serious first step in cleaning up the mess created by the textile industry.

What's wrong with the notification?

Seemingly, the draft policy is meant to force the textile industry to clean up its act, "Zero Liquid Discharge" implying a complete stop to the release of any pollutants.

That isn't quite the case. Even when effluents are treated in a ZLD plant, sludge remains, and it needs to be dumped.

Currently, the industry is mandated to treat the effluent so that its "pollution load" is within prescribed limits and then release it all, including the sludge, into the ocean.

The sludge generated by the ZLD process, however, will be too concentrated to release in this way. So, it has to dumped in the traditional manner.

According to a broad estimate, a textile unit that generates 100 tonnes of effluents will end up generating 500 tonnes if they cut the COD down to 200mg/litre. COD, or Chemical Oxygen Demand, is a measure of water pollution.

"This will create the issue of dumping the sludge. In Dombivli Industrial Area near Mumbai, there are around 400 textile units. Imagine how much sludge they will generate. And where would it all be dumped?" asks Rajesh Gajra, an environmental consultant with expertise in setting up effluent treatment plants.

"How will the government handle dumping of this sludge when it's struggling with municipal solid waste management."

"Moreover," Gajra adds, "the lichet that will percolate through the ground from the heaps of sludge, wherever it's dumped, will contaminate aquifers. This means the very purpose of ZLD policy will be defeated."

That's not all. "If all units go the ZLD way, it will be nothing less than a disaster," Gajra says. "It's a high power-consuming process. The amount of power required isn't currently available. So, the government will either have to enhance power generation or ask the factories to set up captive power plants."

"If the latter is agreed upon, everyone will go for a thermal power plant. With such a large number of textile units in the country, just imagine the amount of carbon emissions."

According to Stalin D, project director of Vanashakti, "this is a classical example of how policies should not be formulated".

"Instead of going into the depth of the issue, the government has issued this draft notification in haste," he says. "I think it's an attempt by the government to project itself as a forerunner in combating climate change. But the notification in its current form will never serve the purpose."

How will it affect the industry?

Mostly, the industry is likely to suffer financially if the policy is implemented.

"The ZLD system is very costly. Small and medium scale industries can't afford it even if they go for a common facility. So, they will have to down their shutters," says the director of a textile company based in Ahmedabad. "As a result, the Indian textile market will be thrown open to the Chinese."

It's vital for the industry's health that the government "gives a second thought to the policy", he adds.

"The notification is nothing less than an attempt to save a finger and cause gangrene to the entire body," says the director of a textile factory in Mumbai who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal. "Instead of coming out with these high-headed policies, the government should strictly implement existing rules and encourage bio-remedial procedures."

He claims bio-remedy - a more sustainable practice of treating effluents using multiple plants, widely being used in Israel - will not only completely treat the effluents, but also create good landscapes in industrial clusters.

Ashwin Aghor @CatchNews