Fine print hassles

Chemical manufacturers shaken by India's signing POPs convention

By Clifford Polycarp
Published: Thursday 31 October 2002

Fine print hassles

-- The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (pops), signed by India on May 14, 2002, has expectedly raised the chemical manufacturers' hackles. The pact seeks to regulate the use of the world's most toxic substances, covering 12 of the deadliest chemicals. Interestingly, the industry is not so shaken by the clampdown on the "dirty dozen" as it is by the ambiguously worded Annexure d of the convention. The appended section provides for "adding new substances" to the hit list.

The manufacturers aired their concern at a recently concluded priority setting meeting in New Delhi for 'Regionally based assessment of persistent toxic substances (pts) in the Indian Ocean region'. According to Paul Whylie, project manager, chemicals, United Nations Environment Programme (unep), the Stockholm Convention and the pts project have the same basis. Only, pts goes a step further. It is quite another matter that India's decision to sign the pops pact will have no impact on the industry. Only 21 countries out of the stipulated 50 have ratified the agreement so far. And the Indian government appears to be in no hurry to follow suit. Ravi Agarwal, director, Toxics Link, a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, believes that consensus on ratification will prove elusive as "the industry has more clout with the government than any of the other stakeholders".

Even if the convention does come into force, it would have a negligible effect on the domestic chemical manufacturing process in the immediate future. Because nine out of the 12 substances are already banned in India. These include eight pesticides (aldrin, chlorodane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex and toxaphene) and an industrial chemical, polychlorinated biphenyls (pcbs). Some allowance is made in the case of 3000-4000 metric tonnes of ddt or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, produced annually for malaria control. Small stockpiles of dieldrin also exist to deal with the locust menace in deserts. The convention, too, allows the exemption of these chemicals for these specific purposes. Its clauses are weakly worded on regulation of dioxins and furans -- the two unintended by-products -- as well.

But the fear of what has been left unsaid is likely to impel the industry to block ratification. To be sure, chemical manufacturers harbour a legitimate grouse: the government did not consult relevant stakeholders before inking the deal. S Ganesan, member, international treaties expert committee, Indian Chemical Manufacturers' Association, claims that the authorities have held "no formal meeting" with the industry. But sources in the Union ministry of environment and forests (mef) point out that such an interaction would take place before a final decision is made on ratification. According to them, the mef will consult all stakeholders through regional workshops to be held under the auspices of the Global Environmental Facility-funded national assessment of pops.

Ganesan highlights two points making out a case against ratification. Firstly, he contends that the criteria for addition of new chemicals contain a combination of firm cut-off value limits and subjective evaluation possibilities. This, he fears, could be manipulated by developed nations to target a few high-volume chemicals widely used in developing countries. Secondly, he avers that the convention glosses over factors such as temperature and level of solar radiation, which influence the rate of chemical degradation. In effect, it overlooks the fact that a chemical which persists long in the temperate European climate may have a much shorter persistence in the tropical climes of India. Agarwal contends that this line of argument is reactive and not in tune with the debate at the international level.

Nonetheless it is felt that two chemicals of significance to India, which already figure in the pts programme, could make it to the pops list. These are endosulfan, a pesticide, and phthalates, used as a plasticiser in the polyvinyl chloride industry. The value of the endosulfan industry is currently estimated to be Rs 250 crore to Rs 300 crore. And the phthalates segment is said to be as big, if not bigger. While Ganesan questions the criteria on inclusion of new substances, D K Jain, vice-president (agrochemicals), Kanoria Chemicals and Industries Limited, New Delhi, says that the technology required to develop some of the new chemicals that are now being produced by developed countries does not exist in India.

At present neither is the us $28 billion Indian chemical industry lobbying proactively against ratification, nor is it gearing up for a post-accession scenario. It appears to be waiting to see what new substances are added to the pops list before it reacts.

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