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OF LATE there has been a growing awareness in South Asia to the new dangers posed by persistent organic pollutants (POPS),
often referred to as the "dirty dozen". Pops are toxic organic
compounds which, once released, continue to linger in the
atmosphere and can pose serious health risks in the long run.
At present, countries worldwide are caught up in a move to
seek ways and means of tackling this growing menace.
In the second week of November, Green peace, an environmental organisation, organised a three-day skill-sharing workshop on POPS in Delhi. People from various Indian states as well as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines participated in the workshop. Several experts from the West also
shared the available information they had in dealing with the
So far, the civil society in South Asian countries has been
preoccupied in dealing with more perceptible and immediate
threats, such as air and water pollution, deforestation and
overpopulation. Increased interaction with environmental
groups from the West has, however, armed them with better
knowledge about POPS.
A realisation that proactive steps is the need of the hour
has also contributed significantly to this state of affairs. In
India, for instance, the adverse effects of imported hazardous
wastes has received a fair amount of attention. The judiciary,
acting on a public interest litigation, began cracking on government agencies responsible for regulating and monitoring
the trade. Needless to say, the agencies did not have the
faintest clue about POPS.
Many government agencies in many South Asian countries are no different. Pakistan and Nepal, for instance, have
huge stockpiles of obsolete pesticides which display POP characteristics. Most of the pesticides came as a part of an aid package to combat the spread of diseases like malaria and kala azar.
Stored in warehouses in residential areas and alongside
schools, there is no saying on the health hazards these chemicals pose to the people living in the vicinity.
There are an estimated 1,935 stockpiles of pesticides in 41
agricultural districts of Pakistan. In the late 1970s, when pesticide trade was privatised, imports increased in leaps and
bounds. Interestingly, in Pakistan, the stockpiles have reduced
due to pilferage. But no one knows where or how the chemicals are being used. It has been estimated that in Sahiwal district of Punjab, Pakistan, 70 tonnes of pesticides had been lost
"due to leakage or container deterioration".
No one knows how to get rid of these stockpiles. In Nepal,
attempts to incinerate these stockpiles drew protests after
workers in the vicinity of the cement kilns, where they were
being burnt, fainted.
The situation is no different in India. Pesticides, the registration of which is supposed to have been withdrawn by the government, are sold openly in hardware stores. Thus, while on paper a number of such chemicals are non-existent, the
reality is quite the opposite. For the officials, "it isn't supposed
to exist, and so it doesn't." The fact that it is regularly
exported to Austria, Belgium, Malaysia and Nigeria, to name a
few, is of no concern.
India is the regional heavyweight. Government officials in
neighboring Bangladesh and Nepal candidly admit that their
success in pest management depends on how effectively India
implements its own laws. Therefore, even though usage may
be banned in these countries, unlimited supplies from India
ensures that they are available in Bangladesh and Nepal.
India, on the other hand, faces a two-pronged threat: that
of usage and the dangers from indiscriminate dumping of
wastes. Despite the fact that it is a global giant when it comes
to production of pesticides, chemicals and pharmaceuticals,
India does not have a hazardous waste landfill worth speaking
of. Toxic effluents and sludge are routinely dumped all over
the countryside, thereby contaminating groundwater and
ruining agricultural lands. Besides, it causes unknown harm to
agricultural and industrial workers and all those who come
into contact with the wastes. In the industrial estates of
Gujarat, for instance, rag pickers and scavengers virtually live
alongside mounds of solidified sludge.
Even the hazardous waste landfills that are being constructed are disasters in the making. Though these landfills are
being made in consultation with an Indo-German cooperation project, it could pass off only as sanitary landfills in
Germany. When questioned about environmental ethics,
everyone involved pleads lack of funds.
In the West, leakage from landfills, which are far more
technologically superior than those being constructed in
India, have cost governments millions of dollars in cleanup
operations. But India is all set to save some money only to
spend it in triple-fold in the not-too-distant future. Not only is
the logic inexplicable, it is dangerous.
Chemicals such as H-acid (a water soluble inorganic
acid), whose production is banned in 117 countries
worldwide, is manufactured in four Indian states. In a
well documented incidence of industrial pollution in
Bichhri, Rajasthan, ii-acid production ruined groundwater
and agricultural lands in the region. Just six months of
production had caused damages estimated at Rs 5 crore.
Recent reports from Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, indicate
identical damage caused by H-acid production. Thus as an
important producer of chemicals, the problem in India
assumes massive proportions.
As if this state of affairs is not bad enough, India is also
the destination of other dangerous industry: ship-breaking. Almost at the same time as the workshop in Delhi,
activists from Green peace and the Basel Action Network
(BAN) boarded a ship, Encounter Bay, and hung a banner
reading "Stop Dumping on Asia" at a port in Barcelona,
Spain. This ship was destined for a ship-breaking port in
Asia - either Pakistan, China or Alang in India.
All types of ships - oil tankers, nuclear-powered
ships and gunboats - are broken up in ship "morgues"
in South Asia. They are often lined with traces of hazardous substances like asbestos, lead paints, heavy metals
and polychlorinated bipherryls (PCBs). The activists have
been demanding that these hazardous substances be
removed from the ships before being sent for scrapping.
With zero safety standards, South Asia is the preferred
haven for cost-cutting shipping managers in the developed countries.
Results of studies carried out by the Central Pollution
Control Board lend credence to the argument that
the ship-breaking industry has seriously damaged
the ecology of Alang. The studies show that the coast
off Alang is heavily contaminated by a host of
chemicals released into the environment when the
ships are broken. The damage mused to the local marine
population is substantial. Workers in these informal
"yards" work with no proper protection. Injury and death
Unless the ships-for-scrap are cleaned of hazardous
substances, they must be considered "contaminated metal
scrap" and, therefore, subject to the Basel Convention which
controls trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes and
their disposal. Since the export of hazardous waste from
Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) -countries to non-OECD countries is governed under
the convention, with some metals completely banned, this
trade must be allowed to continue only if exporting countries
de-contaminate ships to be acceptable to the rules of the Basel
The ongoing efforts are small as compared to the Went of the
problems. But, at the same time, they are essential. South Asia
can learn from mistakes that the developed countries had
committed. Whether this translates into any significant gain is
yet to be seen.
At the international level, negotiations are on to
address the use, production and release of an immediate
list of 12 POPS - aldrin, endrin, DDT, chlordane, heptachlor,
toxaphene, hexachloroberizene, dieldrin and merix,
Pcits, dioxins and forans. This process is expected to
culminate in the adoption of a legally binding convention by
the year 2000.
But, as far as the reality in South Asia is concerned, these
talks could be taking place in another planet. The sanitised
corridors and chambers where such talks are held is, indeed, in
another planet where controls work, accountability is sacred,
adherence to the law is considered supreme. Until such time,
where a similar environment is created, South Asia will remain
a dirty dumpyard.