Await the Indian Love Canal

Published: Thursday 30 June 1994

WHEN will we see sincere efforts to introduce discipline in the disposal of industrial waste in India? If the official interventions in environmental management in India so far are any indication, there is little cause for optimism.

A strong legislation to conserve forests came only after much -- and perhaps, irreparable -- damage had been done to forests. The government moved to save tigers only when a small number of them could be counted. Water pollution prevention came only after several rivers and other water bodies had been defiled, and steps to check air pollution are being taken only now, after it has begun to take a toll. It, therefore, appears that the government is waiting for one or more toxic dumpsites to play havoc with the life of people before it takes effective measures.

The government may not have to wait too long. Scores of waste of all hues are heaped around almost every industrial estate in the country and just may provide the official machinery with the kick-start needed to put toxic waste disposal on its list of priorities. That it is not yet a priority is evident from the fact that there is still no clear legislation to deal with the disposal of the huge quantities of toxic wastes, generated everyday in production process and from effluent treatment plants. It is indeed interesting that while the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act has forced many industries to set up effluent treatment plants, they are hardly concerned about what comes out of these plants and what is done with it. It is obvious that treatment plants have been installed, not with an eye on environment, but only to avoid the legal dragnet.

In this situation, the hazardous waste management rules of 1989 are of little help. Even 5 years after these rules were framed, not a single state in this country has a safe, designated site for disposing of waste. One ridiculous provision in these rules is that industries have been asked to store the waste on their premises until disposal sites are found, even though the maximum allowed storage is just about a truckload. As a report in this issue of Down To Earth shows, hundreds of factories throw out several truckloads of noxious waste everyday, most of it without any detoxification. And, if all the toxic waste in any major industrial estate were to be neutralised, says pollution consultant B V Anjaria in Gujarat, it would generate sludge that would deluge the whole area.

It is far from clear when the government will be in a position to provide sites for toxic waste disposal -- at the current rate, it may be many years. But even after that, the problem is bound to remain. So far, there is no clue about what will be done with the piles of waste that have already come up. These mounds of waste have been seeping into the ground and polluting the surrounding areas. If there aren't many glaring cases of the toll they may have taken on human health and even life, it has more to do with the way health data is collected than anything else.

In this context, it is important to note that most non-governmental organisations and environmental activists have shown a similar myopia in this regard: while the felling of a few trees is enough to kick off a storm of protest, the lethal poisons virtually seeping into their bodies and every natural resource they depend on has failed to agitate them. Little wonder then that the government and the industry do not feel the heat. Are they also waiting for an Indian Love Canal to happen or "cows to die", as a cynical scientist said in Bombay?

The heaps of toxic waste in India are growing faster and bigger than perhaps any other environmental problem in the country. Given that these dumps can lie for decades before any devastation caused by them becomes obvious, the future is grim. Even more so because of the mindless industrialisation that the so-called developed states like Maharashtra and Gujarat pursue.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact that Down To Earth came across was that even the new industrial estates being planned do not take waste disposal into account. Almost like a ritual, a few effluent treatment plants and an expensive imported incinerator are proposed. It is indeed amazing how our managers can think of only expensive end-of-the-pipe solutions regardless of their disappointing performance. Perhaps it is time the non-governmental sections enlarged their agenda to include safe waste disposal as a survival issue.

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