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
THE RIVER BHAVANI
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 rivers 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
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
A study conducted by the Centre for Water Resources at Chennais
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
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
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