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River Bhavani

The stories of Bhavani and Noyyal, two tributaries of the Cauvery river, illustrate the extent of exploitation and degradation affecting the entire Cauvery basin that originates from the Brahmagiri hills in the Western Ghats near Coorg, and covers an area of 8.79 million ha before draining in to the Bay of Bengal.

Bhavani, the second largest river in Tamil Nadu, begins from Kerala's Silent Valley and flows into western Tamil Nadu, covering a distance of 217 km before merging with the Cauvery. The basin drains an area of 0.62 million ha, spread over Kerala (9 per cent), Karnataka (4 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (87 per cent). The main river courses through Coimbatore and Erode districts of Tamil Nadu, before reaching the Cauvery at Bhavani town. About 90 per cent of the river’s water is used for agriculture, even as industries dot the sub basin at every point.

Industrial pollution together with domestic pollution has proved to be the bane of the Bhavani threatening the survival of 6 million people living on its banks.

Although numerous industries are located along the path of the river, it is chiefly SIV industry in Sirumugai, a multi project private sector undertaking, that has done most harm to the basin. The South India Viscose (SIV) factory although now shut, has completely damaged the lower basin, while textile, tanning and dyeing industries wreak havoc further downstream of SIV. About 38,000 cubic meters of effluents and wastewater are dumped into the river. During the mid-90s, SIV discharged tonnes of waste into the Bhavani - discharges containing high amounts of organic and sulphur compounds.

The problem manifests itself when pollutants collect downstream at the Bhavanisagar dam. The impact of this deadly accumulation becomes clear when the dam's gates are closed. Sometimes, scores of dead fish can be seen floating on the dam. Also, suspended solids from pulp and paper, viscose, textile and leather units silt the dams and sometimes cause irreparable damage to aquatic life.

Apart from industrial waste, municipalities also dump sewage in to the river. Untreated sewage from Ooty, Coonur, Mettupalayam, Sathyamangalam, Gobi and Bhavani towns are dumped into the river. At Mettupalayam, numerous slaughterhouses add their waste to the domestic sewage of the town.

The Nilgiris mountain range is also an important centre for pesticide-dependant tea plantations. Pesticides from these tea estates find their way to the Bhavani. Tea estates and coffee pulp houses add an estimated 1.5 mld of effluents to the river every day.

A study conducted by the Centre for Water Resources at Chennai’s Anna University, 'Evaluation and Control of Water Pollution in Bhavani Basin', notes river-dependant community members had reported intestinal and pulmonary disorders. The study also notes that the impact of poor water quality on "the fauna and flora is significant".

Although pollution in the Bhavani has been continuing for years, it was only in the mid-1990s that individual activists joined formally to create a movement.

Finding little help from the government, civil society reacted in a concerted and effective manner. The Bhavani River Protection Joint Council (BRPJC) locally known as Thamilaga Pasumal Iyyakam together with several other NGOs made concentrated efforts to raise awareness. The BRPJC appealed to the court to stop pollution from SIV. As a result on May 9, 1994, more than 3,000 villagers staged a day-long fast at the SIV factory gates.

This was followed by a signature campaign, and rallies were organised at Erode and Coimbatore towns. The council then decided to involve as many people in the region as was possible in their anti-pollution drive. On May 15, 1994, civil action won round one: The TNPCB directed closure of the pulp unit and disconnection of the water and power supply to SIV. In response, the factory moved the Madras High Court. The BRPJC pleaded as a party in the case.

Nevertheless, taking into view the future of nearly 3,000 workers employed in the industry, the court gave SIV time till 1996 to improve their effluent treatment plant and directed the industrial unit not to release untreated effluents into the Bhavani. Accordingly, the pulp plant was closed from January 12, 1997 and the production of rayon and VSF plants was also suspended within 10 days. The company filed a Special Leave Petition with the Supreme Court, seeking permission to operate the plants and went ahead with the installation of the Rs 50-crore effluent treatment plant, using German technology.

However, SIV could not last long. Huge financial losses, civil protests and judicial action finally led to its closure in October 2001.

Civil society action was well-orchestrated, involving agriculturists, the educated urban elite, and through this informed group, political parties. The process of protest also went through all the logical steps: from street protests representing citizens’ dismay at a situation on which they have no immediate recourse, to legal action, where industry was held accountable for their actions.

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