To ban or not to ban

A recent interim court order on toxic trade throws open a Pandora's box: environment, industry, employment, international commitments... the lot

By Manjula Balakrishnan, Rajat Banerji
Published: Wednesday 15 May 1996

Green crusade: the struggle ag (Credit: Greenpeace)THE Indian judiciary has done it again. Taking on the mantle of protecting the environment from further onslaughts, it has issued its most far-reaching order yet - the ban of toxic waste import on Indian shores. The Delhi High Court ordered on April 15, 1996, the ban of toxic waste import, "be it for recycling, reprocessing or dumping". The Court asked the government's standing counsel to file within a week an affidavit stating whether the Union government is taking any steps to ban the import of all kinds of toxic wastes, and whether it has allowed parties such imports in the past.

The order is bound to have international ramifications. It derails the Basel Convention, which was carefully crafted after lengthy and detailed negotiations over several years. Countries around the world - including India - are pledged to do away with trade in recyclable toxic waste only by December 31, 1997. Some experts feel that the court order has put that in a quandary.

Even if the government wants to obey the order, does it have the capacity to do so? Some feel this is not possible, unless there is set up separate agency, which will involve itself in keeping a strict watch on the import of toxic waste. "Very seriously, that is necessary," feels Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, coordinator of the West Bengal Environment Improvement Programme. Ghosh has been much exercised over the increasing toxic waste imports through Calcutta port, and had written to the Prime Minister regarding this last March. lie says the ban will only be effective if the intricacies of the procedure and the tracks through which the waste is often illegally imported is studied well.

"While we don't see this (Court order) as a radical step, we feel that this would get the process of banning toxic trade) moving, as there was no other sign from the government of India, in meeting the 1998 deadline," said Ann Leonard of Greenpeace, reacting to the interim order. Greenpeace is the ultimate hawk in the toxic trade ban issue.

But whereas it is politically correct for the Northern NGOS, the ground situation in Southern countries do not warrant a blind pushing of an outright ban. The recycling industry employs thousands of people, and Indian industry has pledged heavy investments in recycling non-ferrous metals. Also, industry needs time to shift from environmentally degrading to environmentally benign technology.

The government of India had been among the anti-ban hawks through the '86s and early '90s, but always marked out the critical difference between dumping and recycling but had to give in to the 1998 deadline. Yet, in the wake of the immediate ban order by the Court, the government has made a volte face. "We will abide by the Court's order"' states N Bagcln, advisory, pollution control, Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF). A worried delegation representing the non-fierrous metal industry were closeted with Bagchi in a meeting when Down To Earth spoke to him. "The industry is very concerned.But at the moment, we can only give the inputs the High Court demands us of," he added. According to him, the order was not 'properly defined', with respect to what amounted to hazardous wastes. Strangely though, the MEF itself is yet to mike up its mind on which substances would actually be included in the list of hazardous substances. This seems amazing in the fight of the fact that the Technical Working Group Committee, under the Basel Convention, meeting in the last week of April is to finalise the definition of dangerous wastes', and set Lip a list of wastes to be banned for export (Down To Earth, Vol 4 No 10).

With around 40 per cent of the country's requirements of these metals met by recycling (not all which is extracted from imported recyclable waste), and limited mineral resources, recycling represents a viable alternative to extraction and/or import of the metals. "A decision for a complete and immediate ban can be equated with a sudden ban on chemical fertilisers and pesticides in the use of agriculture, which we all desire, but Would make do only in a carefully worked out phased schedule," said Ravi Sharma of the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi. Similarly, the phase-out requires the involvement of all stakeholders, including the workers and industry, on what alternative technologies they may adopt, so that those employed in these industries, are not left jobless," he added. The government will now have to deal with a major problem in hand: Court or Convention?

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