A handmaiden of the West

The Stockholm Convention is against the interests of the developing world

 
By S Ganesan
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

A handmaiden of the West

-- The Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (pops) will come into force on May 17 this year. And that is a matter of great concern for the developing world. This Multilateral Environmental Agreement (mea) currently covers covers nine pesticides (aldrin, chlordane, dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane, dieldrin, diendrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex and toxaphene), one industrial chemical (polychlorinated biphenyls) and two unintended by-products (dioxins and furans). A majority of these substances are no longer in production all over the world. One could, therefore, ask, "Why worry about a treaty that mainly covers dead products?" Well, here lies the crux of the treaty that is not yet widely known in developing countries, including India.

Annexure D of the convention provides for "adding new substances" to the list of pops. And the criteria specified is not always quantitative. Very often, it is clouded by enormous vagueness. For example, under the head "persistence," the treaty does stipulate certain quantitative threshold limits, but caps them with a subjective criteria which states that a chemical can be included within the convention's scope if there is, "Evidence that it is sufficiently persistent to justify its consideration." Similarly, under the head "bioaccumulation" the convention mandates including a chemical if, "Monitoring data in biota indicates that the bioaccumulation potential of the chemical is sufficient to justify its consideration." How exactly does one define the terms "sufficiently persistent" and sufficiently bioaccumulative? That is a million dollar question indeed. In fact, the repeated use of the word "sufficient" in the guidelines makes them subject to political pressures. And that should be cause for enormous concern for us in India. The word can be a powerful tool in the hands of developed countries to induct into the pops list, a few high volume chemicals used widely in developing countries. This will subsequently lead to either ban or severe restrictions in their use and open the market for substitute chemicals not necessarily as effective and as economical.

There is another basic flaw in the Stockholm Convention. It is common knowledge that the environmental factors such as temperatures and level of solar radiation influence the rate of chemical degradation. Consequently, a chemical that persists long in the temperate European climate may have a much shorter life in India. Persistency data varies widely. Can we tell the committee, that reviews pops, that we will go by our data -- and not by information generated in alien conditions -- while studying a chemical for its persistence in the environment?

Moreover, the Stockholm Convention openly disregards principle 11 of the Rio Declaration which states, "[Environmental] standards applied by some countries may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic and social cost to other countries, in particular developing countries." Our environmental problems, priorities and absorptive capacities are different.

In global forums such as the United Nations Environmental Programme (unep) there is discernable difference between negotiating skills of developed countries and that of developing countries. One would never find the latter initiating or actively participating in deliberations pertaining to technical, legal or procedural issues. Their voice can be heard only while seeking financial aid! This is the uncomfortable truth about all unep instituted meas - though rarely acknowledged publicly. The Stockholm Convention is no exception.

Unlike in the World Trade Organization (wto) decision-making in the unep is not consensual. Therefore before associating with it we must ask the following questions: Is the alleged environmental problem significant to affect our country? Are the alternatives offered appropriate and viable? Does it adequately protect our interests? Are its procedures transparent? Is it in conformity with wto norms? The Stockholm Convention does not give satisfactory answers to these questions. Understandably, India is not yet a party to it.

S Ganesan is cochairperson, International Treaties Expert Committee Indian Chemical Manufacturers Association

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