India has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. In the middle of rapid industrialization, India’s economy is well on its way to harnessing the power of the world’s largest population. By converting poor and rural workers into low-wage low-skill workers in manufacturing industries, India is able to throw cheap fuel into its economic engine, allowing for the export of large quantities of low-cost manufactured goods, and incentivizing building housing and infrastructure to accommodate major urbanization. But like any other high power engine, this easy and rapid acceleration comes at a cost: the environment.

Industrial and urban pollution is a major issue in India. Sludge filled rivers and smog filled skies fill a once beautiful landscape. One of the worst sources of industrial pollution in India is the textile industry. For decades, under-regulated textile mills have irresponsibly dumped industrial wastewater laced with toxic dyes into Indian rivers, severely polluting groundwater and surface water within miles of major rivers.

The presence of toxic dye effluents in industrial waste water in and of itself isn’t a problem. Waste water can be made significantly safer by treating effluence before dumping; however, most factories have neglected to do so, as the necessary treatment systems are expensive to buy and maintain, and doing so is barely incentivized. Indian environmental regulations are lacking, and their enforcement is even more so. In Pali, the Indian Pollution Control Board has only 7 members responsible for monitoring and regulating hundreds, if not thousands (small-scale and unregistered factories make accurate estimates difficult), of textile and other factories.

The Bandi River, which passes through Pali, is the dumping ground for some 600 textile mills marked Red (extremely dangerous) by the Pollution Control Board. Chemical testing of groundwater surrounding the Bandi River has shown the presence of toxic dye pollutants in wells and agricultural water within a three-mile radius. This problem is exacerbated by a severe shortage of water treatment plants, the majority of which are out of date, designed to process natural dye effluents, not the synthetic dyes that see the most modern use.

Tamil Nadu, in Southern India, is one of the country’s main hubs of textile industry. Until the 1990s, districts in Tamil Nadu had no water treatment facilities, so textile mills dumped their dye laced waste waters directly into rivers and dams. Decades of sludge have built up at the bottom of the Noyyal River, and toxic seepage has left 20,000 hectares of farmland around Tirupur unusable. Restoration efforts are ongoing, but difficult, and are only made more so by continued illegal dumping.

In October 2016, the Pollution Control board shut down some 600 textile factories in Pali, stating that those factories would only be allowed to operate following comprehensive inspections, and following the construction of treatment facilities. In Tirupur, many textile plants are transitioning to a zero-liquid dye system that environmentalists believe will help reduce pollution. And at the same time, many local groups across India are taking initiative and organizing crews to clean their polluted rivers.

Despite the bleakness of the situation, India is taking its first steps towards an environmentally conscious future. Meaningful change is possible, even if it’s slow-going and difficult. All it takes is a commitment to a future of clean, unpolluted water.

By: Alexander DiRezza