Published: Thursday 15 March 2001

A US ship laden with neurotoxic mercury on its way to India has been sent back to Port Said, Egypt, where it was stationed. This was result of strong protests by environmental organisations and the refusal of the Indian government to allow the toxic shipment to land on the country's shores. The batch was a part of a consignment of 118 tonnes of mercury that D F Goldsmith Incorporation, a metal broker firm in the US, had sent to an undisclosed Indian buyer (see 'Mercurial gift', Down To Earth , Vol 9, No 17, January 31).

Spokespersons for the Union government say that the mercury was hazardous and regulations do not allow import of such waste. They added that although the shipment did not come any further than Egypt, elaborate arrangements had been made to seize the mercury on its arrival. Moreover, as a sign of protest, the dockworkers had decided that they would not unload the shipment. The US government officials, however, have expressed doubts about India's reason for rejecting the consignment.

Despite the call back and promises of legislation from the government, environmentalists are not celebrating. Given the initial reaction of the government and the inability to trace the buyer of the mercury in India, will companies such as D F Goldsmith continue to export such material to countries such as India under the very nose of the government?, they ask. "If conscious people had not come to know about it, the consignment would have landed in India," says Madhumita Dutta of Toxics Link, a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, which was one of the many groups campaigning against the shipment. Although sources in the government assure that provisions have been made to stop any further activity of this kind, "this incident is a lesson to keep one's eyes and ears open," she says.

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