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In Search of a Living River: Let us traverse through Tamil Nadu S.Janakarajan Madras Institute of Development Studies Chennai 600 020 Presentation made at the India International Center New Delhi 7 th Dec 2011. A brief introduction :

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In Search of a Living River:

Let us traverse through Tamil Nadu


Madras Institute of Development Studies

Chennai 600 020

Presentation made at the

India International Center

New Delhi

7th Dec 2011


A brief introduction:

Rivers in India have carried the political, economic and social history of our country

Today water resources in India are under great threat due to indiscriminate use, scarcity and pollution.

This not only undermines the resource base but poses a severe threat to the very foundations of our society, culture and community’s sustenance. This is the context in which I shall discuss the dying or dead rivers of Tamil Nadu



  • The problem of water pollution poses a great threat to basic human living.
  • The ramification of pollution is indeed more severe in the less developed countries that are afflicted with chronic problems of
  • political instability
  • lack of political will
  • high level of illiteracy
  • unceasing poverty
  • increasing degree of urbanization
  • rapid Industrialization
  • lack of basic needs and basic infrastructure
  • high illiteracy and low level of awareness
  • women subordination
  • high degree of corruption at all levels
  • poor health care and poor social security system
  • high population density with poor rural and urban infrastructure
  • Most importantly, the looming climate change threat and its impact on water resources, agriculture and food security etc

Problems with existing approach of data collection and dissemination

Collect information on visible data very selectively - Such as all land details, rainfall, crop details, water, surface and GW, income and consumer expenditure, assets and liabilities, livestock etc

There are certain data which are never given importance:

Information relating to

Pollution of river basins,

Pollution levels of surface and groundwater

Solid waste, Bio-medical waste, urban sewage, e-waste generation

Floods and droughts – socio-economic losses - expenses incurred by way mitigation

Can we neglect invisible data?


Andhra Pradesh

Major river basins of Tamil Nadu









Vaipar & Gundar




Vellar & Manimuthar









Bay of Bengal



Some facts about the Palar basinPalar basin is considered the second rice bowl of the State next to Thanjavur, irrigated by tanks and wells (now both the rice bowls have been disfigured)Highly urbanized with flourishing rural-urban water marketVery high concentration of tanneries; 75% of the tanneries in the State are concentrated in this basin, contributing to 30% of total leather exports of the country, earning Rs.50 billion towards forexTanneries are highly water intensive and polluting industries, generating about 38 mld of effluent with high TDS and chromium and some traces of cyanide Agriculture is very badly affected, decreased yield, abandoned wells, polluted surface and groundwater, acute drinking water problems, serious health problems, rapid decrease in ag. Employment and thousands of people have already left their villages


Extent of pollutants generation in two major tannery centers of the Palar basin

Source: Economic Analysis of Environmental Problems in Tanneries and Suggestions for Policy Action, a study supported by UNDP,Madras School of Economics, 1998


Yield of paddy in the affected and unaffected villages of the Palar basin, 1999

Source: Janakarajan, S, 2006


Mitigation and regulatory measures in the Palar basin

Public interest litigation and Supreme Court’s intervention through what is regarded as historic judgment

Comprehensive failure of CETP

TNPCB and its role – lack of effective monitoring and law enforcement mechanism


Palar river basin: A spring channel being used by the tanneries for discharging their deadly effluent: Find at the background the beautiful temple renovated to which `generous’ contributions came from tannery owners. Village:Gudimallur near Walajapet


Palar river basin: A overflowing spring channel in Vanninedu village with full of stinking and poisonous tannery effluent: A dying tradition due to the socalled modernity - Agricultural land and groundwater have been polluted heavily besides losing an age old spring channel.


Palar river basin: A spring channel in Vannivedu village flowing colourfully with tannery effluent. A dying tradition!!


Palar river basin: The Palar river getting poisoned due to effluent discharge from the tanneries : A sad story


Palar river basin: Spring channels that pass through many villages carry the effluent load ultimately to the river


Palar river basin: Dying soil, dying crops, dying animals with impoverished woman - in the midst of perverted industrial expansion at the background: Village - Vannivedu


Palar river basin: An agricultural well with full of polluted water with no traces of cultivation around - the contribution of tanneries


Water quality of groundwater in the selected areas of the Palar basin

Source: Central Pollution Control Board, 1991, Water quality data compiled from the monitoring wells in the Palar basin



  • The Blacksmith Institute of New York has identified the ten most polluted rivers in the World in 1996
  • The Palar river got the rare distinction of earning a third place
  • The criteria used for such identification are the following
  • The size of the affected population (over 3.5 million)
  • Severity of the toxin or toxins involved
  • Impact of children’s health and development
  • Evidence of a clear pathway of contamination
  • Existing and reliable evidence of health impact
  • Source: World’s Worst Polluted Rivers: The Worst Ten, Blacksmith Institute, New York, Sep 1996, WWW.BLACKSMITHINSTITUTE.ORG

Cauvery – the Inter state river

The mainstay of Tamil Nadu and regarded as its granary

Main tributaries in Tamil Nadu

Bhavani – tanneries, dyeing and bleaching, chemicals, Municipal waste

Amaravathi – Textiles, dyeing and bleaching, paper, sugar, Municipal waste

Kalingarayan Canal - Tanneries, dyeing and bleaching

Noyyal – Dyeing and bleaching, Municipal waste

Kodaganaru – Tanneries, Municipal waste

Cauvery main river – Takes the entire load (from industries and urban waste) and takes further load as it travels further down



The Cauvery rises at Talakaveri on the Brahmagiri Range of Hill in the Western Ghats, presently in the Coorg district of the State of Karnataka, at an elevation of 4,400 ft.above mean sea level. The catchment area of entire Cauvery Basin is 81,155-sq. km.


Cauvery near Mettur – severely polluted due to the concentration of

More chemical and PVC industry – Chemplast is one of the companies which discharges 26 chemicals into the river through its effluent as found by an independent study


Some basic details about the Noyyal basin

Noyyal is a tributary of the river cauvery;

The region which constitutes this river basin is traditionally a dry tract, which depended entirely on GW for all purposes;

Over the years, there has been a secular lowering of water table, resulting in GW depletion in many parts;

This region (Tiruppur town and its suburbs) has entered into the global map for its concentration of knit-wear industries; There are over 3000 knitting mills and over 800 dyeing and bleaching industries in this region;

A very high concentration of dyeing and bleaching units in this region not only consumes a huge quantity of fresh GW but also discharges them back into the Noyyal river;

The estimated quantity of water consumed by these units is about 100 million liters per day.

The Noyyal river looks pathetic with effluent flowing in it all through year;


The threat posed by this dam can be illustrated by what has happened in Feb’1997:

The O’dam constructed across the Noyyal river was overflowing with effluent endangering quite a number of villages around;

Eventually, at the time when there was no appreciable flow in the Cauvery river, the PWD opened the gates of the O’dam to let the polluted water flow down without any prior warning to the public;

The effect was devastating: considerable damage occurred to crops, animals, soils and GW; several hundred animals collapsed after drinking this water; several petitions were filed in the Court claming for compensation; Result - nil.

The severity of the situation was such that Government was forced to release 20,000 cusecs of water from Mettur with a view to reduce the pollution load in the cauvery even though it was a dry period.


One of the streams carrying effluent in the Orathapalayam dam constructed

across the Noyyal river


Noyyal river basin: A view of the polluted Orathapalayam dam which stores nothing but the effluent discharged by hundreds of dying and bleaching units in and around Tiruppur


Noyyal river basin: A small stream with colourful flow of effluent - poisoning the neighbourhood - both land groundwater


Noyyal river basin: Young girls washing and bathing in the Orathapalayam dam’s polluted water: Not aware of the danger!!


Chennai water ways

Cooum river

Adyar river

Buckingham canal

Once cleaner water ways – now carries sewage and industrial effluent

Chennai waterways cleaning moves have been a gross failure although over 1000 crores of rupees have been spent so far

There are reported to be about 750 sewage and effluent outfalls into these waterways carrying over 700 mld of waste water - untreated – finally mixing with Bay of Bengal


The River Cooum, once a fresh water source is today a drainage course collecting surpluses of 75 small tanks of a minor basin. The length of the river is about 65 km, of which 18 km, fall within the Chennai city limits. This once fishing river & boat racing ground has borne the brunt of the city's unplanned explosion

Cooum river in a dry season full of polluted water discharged by

Chennai water Board (from ETP) and by a large number of industries --About 30 per cent of the untreated sewage gets into the Cooum river


Section of the Canal near RA Puram with MRTS – narrowed the canal to < 50 meters – carries at the moment nothing but sewage

The Buckingham Canal is a 422 KM long freshwater navigation canal running parallel to the Coromandal coast of South India from Vijayawada in AP to Chidambaram in TN. The canal connects most of the natural backwaters along the coast. It was constructed during the British period (started in 1806) and was considered an important waterway during the late nineteenth and the twentieth century.

It is believed to be partly responsible for reducing the recent tsunami shock in Chennai.


Cooum river in 1925

Cleaning of the Cooum river under way recently, THE HINDU SEP 29, 2011

Buckingham Canal is the most polluted of the three major waterways in the city with nearly 60 per cent of the estimated 55 million litres of untreated sewage being let into it daily, including by Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board.


Adyar river which originates from the Chembarambakkam Lake in Kancheepuram, is one of the rivers which passes through Chennai,and joins the Bay of Bengal.

Adyar river at the mouth where it joins the Bay of Bengal

Adyar river with full of municipal sewage and effluent discharged by industries


Estimated industrial pollutant loadings discharged into major rivers in Tamilnadu ,

Kilograms per day

Source: Asian Development Bank, Tamilnadu Environmental Monitoring and Pollution Control, Final Report, Volume-II, June 1994


Details regarding CETPs located in various parts of the State

Source: Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, 1994


Some questions which seek answers from all of us

Is it impossible to sustain industrialization and urbanization development without compromising with our rivers and water resources?

On the contrary to what the neo-classical economists argue, why does the market turns out to be a mute spectator – contributing to more and more environmental and ecological damages rather than cleaning up the mess

We can’t bear if the ecology back fires!! Should we wait until such time?

What are the ways forward?

The role Pollution Control Boards

The role laws

Is PIL a solution?

If none of these work, what is the way out? Is there a deadlock?

Or it the curse of the democracy such as the which we have in India?