Just dump it

Acids of arsenic. Organo-mercury compounds. Batteries. Bristles of boars or hogs. More potent stuff: asbestos; slag dross; ash and residues of incineration of municipal and other waste. Even more harmful: waste oil, black oil. Clinical waste. Plastic waste (among many others, waste and scrap of polypropylene, acrylicpolymers, phenoplast and acetate film scrap). Yarn waste. Ferrous waste and scrap. Scrap and waste of cast iron, stainless steel, tinned iron or steel, tin, zinc, lead waste. Waste and scrap of cobalt, titanium, unwrought cadmium, magnesium. Banned pesticides like DDT and lindane

Published: Monday 15 November 2004

Just dump it

-- (Credit: Photographs: Surya Sen / CSE<s)September 30, 2004. Eleven trucks carrying imported metal scrap trundled into Sahibabad-based Bhushan Steels and Stripes Limited (BSSL), a steel smelting and rolling unit. One of them exploded, killing 10 workers -- the scrap the truck was carrying had live ammunition mixed in it.

Then, over the next fortnight, live and used artillery shells, cartridges and spent rockets began to pop up all around the country -- at a community park in Ghaziabad; inside a container in Kandla port, Gujarat; in fields and roadsides (see box: Shell shock). Newsreports -- unconfirmed -- sombrely pointed to the presence of antitank shells and air-to-air missiles. Government -- tightlipped -- launched an investigation.

Following the BSSL explosion, army bomb disposal squads were sent combing depots, ports, containers and the countryside. BSSL's explosive load had been released by the Inland Container Depot (ICD) at Tughlakabad, near Delhi; ICD battened down, refusing to clear any of the 3,000 metal scrap containers lying there. The official investigation sought answers to where the waste had come from, how it could make its way to BSSL. It took two directions. One put the pieces of the shell-shocking puzzle together. The other remains puzzled, and in pieces.

Direction I: puzzle solved
On September 19, 106.5 tonnes of scrap metal reached ICD, Tughlakabad. The bill of entry for the containers showed Iran as the country of origin. They were allowed to go through. Post-BSSL blow-up, when it transpired that shells had Iraqi marks on them, confusion reigned. "Our guess was that these shells might have been smuggled from Iraq to Iran, and then, via a Dubai-based dealer, sent to India," says Sahab Singh, customs commissioner, ICD Tughlakabad, New Delhi (see interview: Ill-equipped, under-staffed).

It took government two weeks to trace the real source. On October 13, 2004 the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) announced the waste was indeed from Iraq. "The scrap originated in Iraq but was sent by road to Iran, from where it was shipped to India," informs Ajay Srivastava, joint director, DGFT. It was shipped from Bandar Abbas port, Iran. Dubai-based Lucky Metals shipped it, in turn, to India. "The Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines was the company that shipped the consignment, by a ship called Kuolong, to Mundra port in Gujarat," informs A K Jyotishi, additional commissioner customs,ICD Tughlakabad. "At ICD, a team comprising an inspector and a superintendent checked the consignment and gave out-of-charge to it," he accepts.

Direction II: puzzled and in pieces
While these facts emerged, the government sublimated into a state of immense perplexity. Was the scrap that had reached BSSL non-hazardous or hazardous? The import of hazardous waste is covered under the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989, amended in 2003. Under it iron and steel scrap are categorised as waste, which is allowed to be imported without any licence or restriction. However, rule 3 (14) offers a definition: "Hazardous waste means any waste which by reason of any of its physical, chemical, reactive, toxic, flammable, explosive or corrosive characteristics causes danger...". Therefore, even if the steel waste is not technically restricted under the hazardous waste rules, by the very nature of its flammable and other characteristics it is clearly hazardous. But grappling with this quandary, the Union ministry of environment and forests (MOEF, custodian of these rules) sank into an official silence it hasn't emerged from, to date. On being contacted, N H Hosabettu, director, hazardous substances management division, MOEF, said the BSSL consignment could not be termed hazardous. As explosives were present in it, he told Down To Earth, the matter concerned the Union ministry of home affairs.

Elsewhere, DGFT and the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) went hammer and tongs at each other. DGFT is affiliated to the Union ministry of commerce and industry, and frames export-import (EXIM) policy. CBEC is affiliated to the Union ministry of finance, and implements what DGFT decides. Stunned by BSSL, DGFT took recourse to meetings. On October 9, it issued a notification asking customs to check all the metal scrap coming to India. But CBEC refused the proposal: customs didn't possess the infrastructure, CBEC said, to regulate non-shredded metals. On October 15, Union minister of commerce and industry Kamal Nath stepped in.

He organised an inter-ministerial meeting to review the export-import policy for metallic scrap. Nath then announced all metal scrap coming to India would have to carry a pre-shipment inspection certificate. Such imports would be allowed only from 14 major ports. Finally, on October 18 CBEC issued a circular specifying the procedures for metal scrap. For the first time, it has differentiated between shredded and unshredded scrap and held the import of unshredded scrap will be allowed from only 15 notified ports, while shredded scrap can come through the other 30-40 minor ports also.

It has also tightened the importer's responsibility by making the pre-shipment inspection certificate mandatory for all metal scrap import. Earlier, it was mandatory only for a consignment from a war-torn country. Also, the shipping company, that is carrying the loose metal scrap, has to ensure that every consignment is accompanied by a pre-shipment inspection certificate before it is loaded. But will this be enough?

Shells in scrap
The government is treating BSSL as a one-off incident. But as a customs official says, "The first such case came to light in 1991, when ICD was located at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. That time, too, a consignment had come from Iraq. But it did not make news because the quantity of explosives in it was minimal. In 1994, there was a blast at ICD due to explosives hidden in waste, which killed five people." What did government do? It shifted ICD to Tughlakabad.

The experiences of metal scrap recyclers also point to a horrendous regulatory record. Narrates a north Delhi-based steel recycler, who -- like BSSL -- imports metal scrap: "In 1994, a pistol was found in the metal scrap consignment I had imported. I was booked under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and spent three months behind bars." Most of the scrap comes from war-torn countries, he adds, simply because it is the cheapest in the world.

There is another facet to this dirty trade. DGFT has a separate category for empty or discharged cartridges of all bores and sizes. In other words, it legally allows the import of "dead" ammunition. In 2002-2003 alone, we imported 6,751 tonnes of this explosive scrap. Strikingly, we are getting most of it from Ivory Coast -- clearly a war zone. The government will of course argue that this scrap has been checked and cleared. But is the system rigorous enough to be able to detect a "live" shell in a consignment of dead ammunition?

Shells? In scrap?
An impression government has fostered is that the shells got "accidentally" mixed with the metal scrap. But recyclers claim the exact opposite: shells are added because they are in demand. "As other countries do not want to touch scrap from war-torn countries, it is much cheaper: a tonne costs US $220-230, about Rs 10.50 per kg. As against this, the same steel scrap from the US would cost about US $280. "The average cost of the metal scrap from a war-torn country becomes much lower because apart from steel, this waste contains valuable metals like brass, copper, manganese and nickel," says a Delhi-based recycler who also imports metal scrap. In Delhi, the cost of nickel and copper is Rs 800 per kg and Rs 184 per kg respectively. Brass and manganese are sold at Rs100 per kg.

Recyclers claim metal scrap is imported into India due to shortage. Consider steel scrap. India imports nearly 2.5 million tonnes of steel scrap annually. The problem is that there is a growing gap in production and consumption of steel. India's per capita steel consumption is about 30 kg, as compared to 200 kg in China and 350 kg in Europe. But the boom in the construction sector and the car market has heated up demand. Domestic manufacturing is not keeping pace and steel scrap from other countries has filled this gap. Ironically, just days before the shell burst in Ghaziabad, in August, the government removed the five per cent import duty on steel scrap. Going by rough estimates, there are close to 2,000 factories -- furnaces, rolling mills and re-rolling mills -- that operate across the country to segregate, smelter and recover steel. Like BSSL.

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