Desperately seeking waste

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 28 February 2006

By the time you read this, the decision would have been taken: to allow or not to allow the French warship Le Clemenceau into India, so that it can be dismantled with unknown quantities of toxic substances in its structure. The decision could be to send the ship back for decontamination, or to send the asbestos waste back to France after removing it from the ship. But whatever the decision, it is important that the matter of Le Clemenceau is not buried with its body at the Alang ship funeral grounds.

It is important to understand that this is not the first or the last ship that will make it to Indian waters for clean up -- and with highly toxic waste. It is also important to realise that foreign hazardous waste does not come in ships only, and that our poverty -- financial and mental -- could well make us the world's biggest dumpyard, as we import larger and larger quantities of waste to reuse and recycle. This is particularly important for a country that is beginning to generate large quantities of toxic waste with few resources at its disposal to get rid of its junk. This French ship must be our call to set a few houses in order.

Let us recognise that global agreements on waste trade have failed. The world cobbled together the Basel Convention in the early 1990s, after it was shocked with Le Clemenceau -type ships carrying waste going from country to country, finding ports to dump. This was the time when the industrialised world was beginning to explode with wealth and waste generation. It needs cheap dumping grounds. Africa was seen as the favourite, with surreptitious and not-so covert deals being made to send toxic waste of the rich North for disposal in the poor continent.

The world was shocked. So, it decided to work on an agreement to control the transboundary movement of hazardous waste. The intention was heroic indeed -- to stop all trade in toxic waste. But slowly green fervour gave way to brown realism. It was agreed that countries, which have the capacity to treat waste, should be allowed to trade in dirt. A rich waste managers' club -- comprising oecd and other European countries -- was formed, dividing the world between those that can treat and those that can't. In this waste-caste system, the poorer nations, who climb up the wealth-waste ladder, are debarred from membership.

Waste, after all is also a resource, and so it was agreed that trade should be allowed for recycling or reprocessing. Ironically, the same poor countries who had once demanded that trade in toxics should be banned now want the trade to continue. They are markets for waste, as they could reprocess the dirt to extract resources -- from paper to metal waste. With all its green morality, the rich world also needs cost-effective ways of treating its toxic and not-so toxic garbage.

So, the convention began to hedge. The poor became the shield of the rich -- as in many other environmental matters -- and it was agreed to allow toxic waste trade as long as it was for recycling and as long as the facilities for reprocessing the waste were environmentally sound.

In the mid-1990s it was decided that as monitoring of these "green waste facilities" could not be guaranteed, it would be banned. But this Basel Ban has never seen the light of day as it impinges on the interests of the rich waste producers and poor garbage collectors. Interestingly, every effort made to hold the rich 'liable' for compliance has failed, as have efforts to minimise the production of hazardous waste.

The convention is then about regulating toxic trade. But even here it is miserably failing. My colleagues rummaged through data collected by the diligent custom authorities on imported goods. They have discovered that India continues to be the favourite destination of all kinds of the garbage and dirt -- from mercury to ash from incinerators. It even imports clinical waste, which its own custom authorities say could be contaminated with pathogens. This when it cannot even begin to deal with its own waste in its own backyard.

The Indian government says that all hazardous waste trade is banned into India. The European and American exporters of waste say that they abide with the Basel Convention and do not engage in dirt trade. How then does this happen?

Take the case of mercury. India is importing large quantities of mercury from Europe and the us. The catch is that mercury is banned for trade if it is waste or if any waste product contains mercury. But the rich world, which is phasing out its mercury because of health concerns, is "selling" it's waste stock as fresh mercury. The sham continues in full light. Shame.

Take incinerator ash or metal residues. The Indian importer, which buys this dirt from uk or Australia will claim that it is being done for recycling purposes -- to extract "precious" metals for the Indian economy. This trade is not listed as hazardous in India. The rich waste generators cannot sell this ash. But they do.

The government says that it monitors all toxics, that arrive for recycling but it cannot tell you where the waste is going -- in products or dumped in our backyard. It makes incomplete lists of toxics and convolutes definitions of how hazardous is hazardous.

The waste trade is dirty. To clean up will take more than the occasional war paint to herald the arrival of another Le Clemenceau.

-- Sunita Narain

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