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A dyeing industry in southern India

India Dispatch: India's Knitwear Capital - Tamil Nadu - is slowly unraveling and much of the farmland remains barren.
H&M, Reebok and Ralph Lauren all have their production facilities in Tirupur, which is also known as the Dollar City for the foreign revenue its generates. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg News
H&M, Reebok and Ralph Lauren all have their production facilities in Tirupur, which is also known as the Dollar City for the foreign revenue its generates. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg News

'Dollar City' used to be a thriving textile manufacturing hub until a row over water pollution resulted in the closure of treatment plants. The aftershocks forced garment manufacturers to shut up shop and lay off workers. Economic collapse quickly followed. Adam Matthews reports:

Everything in Tirupur, India, seems to revolve around clothing. And as you cross this medium-sized city, an hour's drive from Coimbatore, the second-largest city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, you can see every element of the manufacturing process.

The cluster of yarn manufacturers, cloth makers, companies that cut and sew textiles, middlemen of all stripes and the nearby ports of Tuticorin, Chennai and Kochi made Tirupur a global centre of clothing manufacturing. It is here that Reebok, H&M and Ralph Lauren make their wares.

In addition to the nickname "India's Knitwear Capital", Tirupur is also called the "Dollar City" for the large amount of foreign revenue it generates: about US$2.5 billion (Dh9.18bn) in 2010, according to a study last year prepared by a group of Harvard Business School students.

The same study found that the "cluster provides direct employment to 350,000 workers" and boasted 6,250 manufacturing operations by 2010.

Companies such as A Padmanaban's Excellent Processors, which dyes cloth, and the Mannarai Common Effluent Treatment plant, were also an important part of this once-thriving ecosystem. But like most of the wastewater treatment plants in the area, which disposed of the detritus of clothes dyeing, Mannarai was shut down last February when the Madras high court closed all operations that discharged waste after a lawsuit by farmers over the pollution of drinking water.

So Mannarai, a 15-minute drive from Tirupur, now lies dormant. Best viewed from a rickety observation tower, it is a collection of four swimming pool-sized concrete tanks, evaporators and various holding tanks. Underneath the observation tower, six black metal refining tanks are bolted to a stained concrete floor the size of a football pitch.

PN Shanmuhasundar, who owns the Mannarai Common Effluent Treatment plant, is a trim man in his early 60s. One evening, concerned about the future of his business, he arrived at the offices of the Tirupur Dyers Association with an environmental mitigation specialist and a chemist, hoping for a meeting with the president. Just across a small field, the ramshackle premises of A Padmanaban's Excellent Processors are also dormant. It is impossible to dye clothes if you can't dispose of the waste.

"In 2011, we ran only 88 days," Mr Padmanaban says. "We have lost around $150 million. We … can maximum withstand another three months. After that [the] bank will take action."

And as dyeing goes, so goes the entire garment trade. Mr Shanmuhasundar estimated that the overall business had plunged to about 30 to 40 per cent of its peak.

It has been a year since the shutdown. In late December, J Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, finally released an aid package for the clothing industry in Tirupur, pledging almost $26m. The disbursal is supposed to help the rest of the cluster attempt to return to business as usual.

But it will not be that simple for Tirupur to return to form. Inside India, competition has grown. Clothes manufacturing has notoriously slim margins, so economies of scale are crucial. According to the Harvard Business School report, Tirupur had earned a reputation for being able to turn around orders quickly at very competitive prices.

Mr Shanmuhasundar says it used to take about 10 days to fill an order.

Orders now have to be sent to other dyeing facilities in far-off cities such as Ludhiana in the state of Punjab, Surat in Gujarat or Kolkata in West Bengal and could take as many as 40 days. The distance makes it impossible to oversee the process to ensure quality control. Customers have found alternatives, factory owners say.

"Eighty per cent of the buyers have diverted to other countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh," Mr Padmanaban explained. "It will take about two years to return to normality."

Resourceful entrepreneurs decided not to wait that long and tried to fill the gap. But early last month, Tamil Nadu pollution control officials shuttered 26 illegal dyeing operations. In December, authorities in Karnataka, a neighbouring state, closed 22 illegal dyeing facilities that had been started by migrants from Tamil Nadu.

At the Orathupalayam Dam, several men said it was common knowledge that illegal dyers were still dumping untreated waste into the Noyyal. The foamy white clouds of discharge pooling at the outlet of the dam seemed to bear this out.

"We want the government to set up a mechanism to make sure those dyeing are actually developing zero-discharge treatment," says SMPrithiviraj, an activist with the non-governmental organization CARE-T."The government should ensure that money should be spent in a proper way and a meaningful way so they are set up properly."

The conflict highlights a common dilemma in developing countries: when do environmental concerns trump development? In Tirupur, the conflict has pitted the up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneurs of the garment cluster with the farmers of the region, especially those near the Orathupalayam Dam, which was completed in 1992 to aid irrigation.

Mr Padmanaban is typical of these entrepreneurs, in that he was not educated at a fancy English-language university and speaks only perfunctory English. Other industrial clusters such as the vehicle-assembly hub Sriperumbudur, near Chennai, are based on attracting multinationals that receive tax breaks, guaranteed water and power to build state-of-the-art super factories. Mr Padmanaban's plant, by comparison, looks far more makeshift. He built it bit by bit, financing it as he went. Holding court in an office just off the central square of his compound, which features a tin-roofed drying area, with row upon row of bars to hang cloth, he was dismissive of the farmers.

"Yes, farming has been affected," he says, "but [the government] compensated the farmers. The farmers made it a big deal. They took it to the court."

But if you travel to the dozen or so villages around the Orathupalayam Dam, the farmers' case looks a lot stronger. About 5 kilometres from the dam, the lush rice paddies give way to a barren landscape, where little grows besides coconuts. And even the taste of this region's staple crop, a necessity in Tamil cooking, has been compromised by the water's salinity.

Construction of the dam began in 1984. Villagers say they either gave their land willingly or were intimidated into it.

Either way, shortly afterwards, the dyeing units arrived and water quality dropped precipitously. Treatment plants such as Mannarai, when they were operating, were able to remove many of the chemicals, but the water they discharged had sodium levels that made it almost useless for agriculture.

To demonstrate the severity of this problem, Mohanraj Alli Muthu, the assistant engineer, sends a younger man down a steep flight of concrete stairs to the dam below with a plastic jug. When he returns, Mr Muthu dips a measuring device into the pitcher. It reads 2,000 milligrams of sodium per litre. At that sodium concentration, several villagers explain, the only thing you can grow is coconuts. And it is coconuts that are unfit to eat. You can use it only to press oil, Mr Muthu says.

Those who did not sell their land to the government have watched crop output plummet. A nearby village is nearly abandoned, the fields largely barren. With the collapse of agriculture, many of those displaced have sought jobs in Tirupur's clothing industry.

"The government should come up with a comprehensive plan for compensation for farmers," says Mr Prithiviraj, who is also an organiser of the farmers' lawsuit.

He is angered by what he feels is the government's emphasis on the clothing industry. "It's one thing to clean the river," he says. "We welcome some steps in that direction, but at the same time we want the government to pay adequate compensation to farmers suffering from environmental pollution."

However Tirupur's dyeing crisis plays out, change will come slowly.

Although Mr Jayalalithaa, the chief minister, decided to disburse $25.9m to 15 waste treatment plants in the region, the owner of the Mannarai treatment plant is still waiting for his $1.88m share.




Updated: February 14, 2012 04:00 AM