The waste of nations

There is a seamier aspect to the outsourcing boom: waste

Published: Sunday 31 October 2004

-- THE festival of Diwali celebrates Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. She is believed to reside in gobar (cow dung), which has run the Indian economy over millennia. Waste has been long equated with wealth in India. But the outsourcing boom of recent times has brought an altogether sinister aspect to waste management.

In Uttar Pradesh's Sahibabad district, Diwali came too early. Containers carrying metal scrap possibly imported from Iraq exploded (see Dumping live ammo). Meant to add to India's industrial wealth, it took 10 lives and launched country-wide hysteria about imported metal scrap.

There is nothing inherently wrong in importing waste. It is a form of recycling, very much as gobar is (for cooking, fertiliser, domestic hygiene). But it is easy to handle gobar; metal scrap with live ammo is quite another. The Indian government has been trying for long to enter the Annex 7 classification of the Basel Convention, which regulates international trade of hazardous substances, and facilitates trade in it. The category includes the EU and OECD countries, which are permitted to trade in hazardous waste amongst themselves. The convention isn't convinced a developing country like India has the capacity to manage hazardous waste trade. India claims: trust us; we know.

Hence the Sahibabad explosions.

And we aren't even getting into the hundreds of containers of certified hazardous stuff that failed to get through the Indian regulatory system (if such a thing exists at all, that is) and is merely lying around. These stocks can't be sent back because the Indian regulations are totally muddled about liability. There is a business interest in importing the waste, but there is no profit in taking it out of India. In such a situation, the rules need to be clear about the accountability of the shipping and importing agencies. But the the waste is routed through so many channels that it is impossible to fix responsibilty. For example, imagine the number of people involved in taking old newspapers from your house to a recycling unit.

The wealth in waste requires a capacity to handle it. Laxmi is also said to be a very volatile goddess.

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