Our little mushroom clouds

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Toxic waste is a problem. Whose?

RE 0.70 buys one of the cheapest paracetamol pills in the Indian market. An essential drug, it needs to be kept inexpensive. Manufacturing such drugs has a much bigger cost that is never factored into the pricing: pharma factories release large quantities of slurry, often hazardous. This is dumped in places where people either do not know the effects of hazardous waste or are powerless to protest the dumping. In several cases, it is both, for it is not easy to hide toxic waste; if it doesn't smell foul or corrode storage vessels, it spills over to large tracts, making the land unproductive.

These unfortunate villages subsidize--with their bodies and their means of living--essential drugs as also a range of non-essential consumer commodities. From automobiles to cellular phones, hazardous wastes are all around us. But nobody in India bothers about what happens to a replaced cellular phone or a dead battery of a radio. The official definition of toxic waste in India assumes it is generated only inside factories. The distributed sources of toxicants are never accounted.

Even that which is defined as toxic is not handled with any regard to health and safety. Industry does not invest in treating the waste it generates because it does not want to pay for it, and believes the consumers would not accept it if the cost is passed on. Villagers pay for this with their health, water and land. This is comparable to rich countries dumping toxic waste and polluting industrial processes on poor countries.

There are industries that engage in PR clean-ups to add columns under the corporate social responsibility chapter of their annual reports, as if their actions spring from altruism; there is little acknowledgement of the pollution they cause. They can get away with their sins because the government prefers to subsidize industries and look the other way when they pollute. In fact, it has diluted the existing safeguards (under Environmental Impact Assessment) for making industry accountable for its environmental and social impacts.

The industry-government alliance makes it impossible for people--and social groups that defend their rights--to press for clean industrial processes. Their protests are labelled anti-development. This polarization is unhealthy for any country with democratic aspirations.

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