Analysis: The High Cost of India’s Cheap Garment Exports
By Pragya Tiwari
Two winters ago, while driving into Delhi at the crack of dawn, I found myself staring at looming soft mountains of candy pink foam rising from the grey surface of the river Yamuna. This surreal image with its perfectly complementary hues could well have been from a fashion editorial made for Instagram. But, ironically, the tableau was representative of the dark face of fashion that remains in the shadows – the face, not just of the rising consumption of clothes around the globe, but also of the true cost of cheap, ready-to-wear garments that we are quick to buy and discard.
The heaps of toxic foam that engulf the Yamuna, for large parts of the year, are linked to the phosphate content of detergents in the wastewater of cloth manufacturing units. Several such units are scattered all over the northern Indian state of Haryana, which borders Delhi. In the small town of Panipat alone there are hundreds of dyeing units, and many of these units release toxic waste into the river.
Drains that carry these effluents run through villages, polluting their potable water. Until recently locals would use the water, despite it being variously coloured with chemical dyes, but now they claim it is not even fit to use for their cattle. This state of affairs has serious repercussions for the majority of Haryana’s population because they depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to cultivate crops that have been traditionally grown in the state with the scant usable water that is available.
Thousands of these same farmers have joined what has been called the biggest protest in world history. Their immediate demand is that the government rolls back laws, which they claim favour large corporations over small farmers. But these laws are simply the proverbial last straw – the agricultural sector in India has long been in distress and water scarcity is one of its most pressing problems.