India will be clean

Old and new concrete buildings line up, an annoying mixture of advertising, dirt and honking cars - Tirupur is an industrial city sprouting from the ground without any charm. There are an estimated 5000 textile companies in the southern Indian city, 3000 of them with more than 50 employees. There, yarns are knitted into fabrics, dyed, tailored and printed. Locals speak of the t-shirt mecca. In addition to the buyers, representatives of textile machine manufacturers are in town these days. Because Knit-Tech, a large trade fair for textile technology, is running.

The business is doing well. Officially the city has about 450,000 inhabitants, but unofficially it looks different, and more and more people are arriving from poorer areas of the country. Because here are the jobs that are missing in many places in India. A bridge crosses the Noyol, one of the city's two rivers. After months of drought, it is just a trickle, the banks of which are lined with rubbish.

The t-shirt metropolis has only gotten out of step once, due to severe environmental damage from the dye works. Today, however, there are a few factories here that dye neatly, using modern technologies such as Poppy's Art.

Ananthraman Ganesh runs the textile company SAGS Apparels with his brother, with a good 300 employees. They process fabrics that are dyed according to the GOTs ecological standard, which, according to independent experts, is considered to be best practice in the field of eco-textiles. They have their coloring at Poppys Art, which is part of a medium-sized company with around 50 million dollars in sales. Customers include mainly English companies such as the Marks & Spencer department store chain or the supermarket operator Tesco. Ganesh finished for the German label Brands Fashion, which specializes in workwear, merchandising and private labels

The dye works is spread over three buildings: The colors are mixed and tests are carried out in a laboratory; in the main hall there are more than a dozen large, shiny steel tanks, with blue trolleys with white cotton sheets in between. Three workers are pulling black strips of fabric out of a tank through porthole-sized openings, which they then push into the drying system, which is housed in another hall. Dyeing takes place here around the clock, in three shifts.

The company has invested the equivalent of more than seven million euros in the dye works, especially in machines - including some from Germany, says engineer Sivakumar, who runs the plant. "Now we can dye in an environmentally friendly way". For one kilo of fabric, for example, you only need an eighth of the conventional amount of water. Thanks to the new technology, it only takes a third of the time it used to. How did the companies here in Tirupur paint in the past? The employees at Poppys prefer not to comment on this. Here, too, fabrics are traditionally dyed in open basins and laid out to dry.

The majority of companies do not voluntarily change their practices

The history of the local dye works says a lot about the willingness of the majority of local companies to voluntarily change something for the better. For decades, companies diverted the dark and smelly sewage into the two rivers; the groundwater was polluted and fields downriver were saline and hardly anything grew. The government of the state of Tamil Nadu, which is home to 72 million people, has repeatedly called for improvements over the years, threatened entrepreneurs and closed several hundred factories in 2005, but only temporarily.

Farmers who saw themselves being deprived of their economic livelihoods sued and the Madras Court, the state's highest court, finally passed a spectacular verdict in 2011. Around 700 dye works had to stop their production immediately. In the event of violations, the authorities even threatened to turn off the electricity. The production chain got out of step. Workers were laid off in rows. The local textile industry was on the verge of collapse. Politicians have now responded with incentives to build environmentally friendly dye works, just like Poppy's art.

A modern sewage treatment plant is located on a site right next to the factory. A thick stream of black broth pours into the initial basins, where lime is added, then the water goes through various stages of clarification. 98 percent of the water, says Sivakumar, flows back into production at the end, the rest consists of three quarters of salt, which can also be reused for dyeing. There is a computer in the control room of the sewage treatment plant. Here, the data on all stages of the clarification process are recorded, says an employee who taps a glass of the clarified water, which is drinkable. The data would be forwarded to the authorities, says Sivakumar.

After the extensive dyeing stop, local textile manufacturers had desperately looked for replacement dye works. Many deliveries were months late. In some cases, the problem has only been shifted: the surge in demand has created old-style dye works elsewhere, for example in the Delhi region, report entrepreneurs. Many would now have their dyeing done there because it was cheaper there.