Toxic waste: Who cares where it's dumped?

Self-reliance and export prospects have contributed to the rapid growth of the Indian chemical industry. But the distaff side of the boom is the gigantic quantities of harmful byproducts: noxious wastes, dumped irresponsibly anywhere you can find some unmonitored space. A bit of foresight brings home the scary possibility that nothing less than a disaster will shake officials and industrialists out of their laidback attitude in dealing with environmental evil.


Toxic waste: Who cares where it's dumped?

-- (Credit: Pradip Saha /CSE) On the outskirts of Ahmedabad, near the Vatva industrial estate, a strange sight greets visitors: stray dogs are tinged with a purple hue, splashed with blue or green. Cause: rambling through dumpyards around the estate, where toxic waste is thrown.

Two months ago, 3 people burnt their feet while walking near an illegal dumping site at Vapi. Later, officials who went to check the site had their feet burnt right through the soles of their shoes. Cause: dumping of toxic gypsum.

In Vadodara, fumes can "nearly always" be seen in the afternoon emanating from an illegal dumpsite. In 1986, a fire engine trying to put out the flames itself caught fire and was destroyed. Cause: dumping of hazardous wastes.

In Bombay's largest municipal dumpyard near Deonar, workers complain of constant respiratory problems. Sometimes, they experience nausea and dizziness. Cause: dumping of hazardous waste along with domestic garbage.

FORGET about Western nations surreptitiously dumping toxic wastes in developing countries. Like a cancer spreading silently and virtually unnoticed, some Indian industries are churning out tonnes of solid toxic waste and callously offloading them in the nearest open space, with not a thought spared for people and environment.

The main culprit of this uninhibited toxic generation is the Indian chemical industry, which has boomed in the past 30 years. And, ironically, the growth of this industrial sector -- that today is the 4th-largest in the country -- seems to have much to do with the official policy of self-reliance and import substitution.

The rapid growth of this sector is unique -- especially considering that the industry sells only a small portion of its products directly in the open market. The bulk of its output is raw material for consumer product industries such as plastics, paints and textiles. Consequently, any thrust to meet the country's requirement in one area is usually reflected in the growth of some segment of the chemical industry. Fertilisers and pesticides are 2 prime examples of growth by proxy.

India's fertiliser consumption in 1959 was 223,000 tonnes, but today it has shot up to 12 million tonnes average per annum. To attempt to meet this demand halfway, the average capacity of an ammonia plant has gone up from about 200 tonnes a day in the '70s to about 1,500 tonnes.

Take phosphatic fertilisers: phosphate was obtained by treating phosphate rock with sulphuric acid, which was limited in supply because it was derived from imported sulphur. Sulphuric acid was replaced by nitric acid, which led to a boost in fertiliser production. The target is to augment the phosphorus pentoxide capacity from the current level of 1.5 million tonnes a day to 5 million tonnes by the year 2000.

The first pesticide factory was set up in 1948 to produce DDT for malaria control and BHC for locust control. Today, India has emerged as the 2nd-largest pesticide manufacturer in Asia, producing over 65,000 tonnes per annum.

Changing international industrial trends have also spurred domestic growth, especially in sectors like dyestuff and pigments, which feed a wide array of industries, including textiles, leather, paints and pesticides. On their part, developed countries are phasing out dyestuff manufacturing processes that produce hazardous wastes or high levels of pollution. This reduced availability has provided a major incentive to Indian industry, despite the occasionally indifferent financial policies of the Indian government.

In one decade, the ever-rising export potential in the '80s prodded this sector of the chemical industry to grow at a faster rate than perhaps any other segment of industry. The exports of the dyestuff industry, which earned a measly Rs 35 crore in 1984-85, crossed the Rs-1,000-crore mark by the end of the decade (see graph). Little wonder then that the burgeoning of the chemical industry in the '80s is often brandished as proof of the potential of Indian industry as a whole -- if only it were "unshackled".

However, even cursory visits to estates that house such "shackled" but "high potential" industries create doubts about whether they can be entrusted with any responsibility for the environment. States like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab, which are thriving on the juggernaut of industrial expansion, face the problem of toxic waste disposal far more acutely than less developed states. Says Ramesh Trivedi, former chairperson of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), "It is the same story everywhere. There is no control on dumping. Anything is being dumped by anybody anywhere in the state."

Back in 1989, the Union environment ministry had formulated guidelines to manage and handle hazardous wastes (see box). But the state and Union governments had their hands full controlling air and effluent pollution; and so ensuring that hazardous wastes are disposed of safely was hardly a priority, argues Trivedi. He warns that apart from the damage already done to the environment by callous dumping, the inordinate delay in locating sites for solid waste disposal makes them a time bomb with a short fuse.

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