Ever since the birth of the industrial age, hazardous waste disposal has always been a controversial issue. It has been a contentious in terms of environmental justice or environmental crime. It has posed questions time and again on the rights of people depending on their economic conditions. This is the reason why countries producing majority of the hazardous waste find dumping grounds in the less developed or poor nations and the process is justified because it is carried out well within the regulations of both countries. This is a serious question often asked and argued but the trend of disposing of hazardous material in foreign lands by paying fee/money is still prevalent and is increasing with increasing production of hazardous waste per person. Countries like US where regulations around hazardous waste are too stringent, companies there have since long time searched for new lands where regulations are sloppier to dispose of their waste. In this way most of the developing countries have managed their environmental problems, by importing them to developing nations.
Looking at the situation in India, it is one of the hotspots for developed countries for exporting waste illegally as a part of vast and growing international business. Lax laws and intentional lacunas in India make export of such hazardous waste easy at the cost of impact on environmental health. According to Greenpeace during 1990-93, India imported 19.7 lakh tonnes of metal waste, 3,911 tonnes of lead waste and 50 lakh kilograms of lead acid batteries. In 1993, the USA alone sent 7,800 tonnes of plastic waste, 26,800 tonnes of tin waste, 917 tonnes of lead ash and 14.5 tonnes of used lead acid batteries to India. The USA exported 73 thousand tonnes of waste to India during January-July 1994. A 2011 Rajya Sabha report, states that India had been a destination for industrial wastes such as mercury, electronic and plastic wastes from the US; asbestos from Canada; defective steel and tin plates from the EU, Australia and the US, toxic waste oil from the UAE, Iran and Kuwait; zinc ash, lead waste and scrap, used batteries and waste of metals such as cadmium, chromium, cobalt, antimony, hafnium and thallium from Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK, Belgium and Norway.
For managing the hazardous waste India implemented its first Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules in year 1989. Now it has come up with new rules known as Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules which came into effect on 4th April, 2016. It very well states that no import of the hazardous and other wastes from any country to India for disposal shall be permitted BUT it allows the “import‘’ of hazardous and other wastes from any country for the ‘recycling or recovery or reuse’. As per the Rules, “transboundary movement” means any movement of hazardous or other wastes form an area under the jurisdiction of one country to or through an area under the jurisdiction of another country or to or through an area not under the jurisdiction of any country, provided that at least two countries are involved in the movement. It clearly shows that "transboundary movement" of hazardous is in fact a part of Government's sound environmental management approach. This term has found its place in the new Rules in a clear manner though it has been lifted from UN’s Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. Basel Convention was the first international convention that targets “to minimize the generation of hazardous wastes in terms of quantity and hazardousness; to dispose of them as close to the source of generation as possible; to reduce the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes.” India is a party to the convention but the new rules are contrary to the objective of this Convention. It promotes transboundary movement of hazardous wastes making ways for more importing in the name of recycling or recovery or reuse thus encourages disposal of waste farther away from the source of generation. Here in India, we have serious issues with simple treatment and recycling of domestic wastes so it is a big question how equipped India is when it comes to proper handling and disposal of hazardous waste coming from other countries.
Looking at the Background, the Basel Convention defines waste materials as “materials which are disposed of, or intended to be disposed of, or required to be disposed of, to the environment”. The Supreme Court of India in its order of October 2003 had already observed that although Basel Convention has banned import of 76 items, India had only banned 29 items under the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989. It directed the Union of India to incorporate the Basel Convention list in the existing Rules and had actively argued for expanding the list of prohibited items for import. But nothing was done and now the new rules give more room for import of hazardous waste thus encouraging globalisation of the toxic chemical crisis. Our National Environment Policy acknowledges how "Environmental factors are estimated as being responsible in some cases for nearly 20 percent of the burden of disease in India. It also refers to strategies for cleanup of toxic and hazardous waste dump legacies, developing a national inventory of such dumps, an online monitoring system for movement of hazardous wastes and taking legal measures for addressing emergencies arising out of transportation, handling, and disposal of hazardous wastes. All of this is missing in the new rules.
India should rethink of its short term profits and long term losses or long term impacts on health of its people and environment. It should regain its original stance of being a strong opponent of the international waste trade and an ardent supporter ban on toxic waste exports from the world’s richest countries to less industrialized ones as it did at the First Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention in Uruguay, in December, 1992. It had pleaded with industrialized countries to stop exporting hazardous waste and advocated that when industrialized/developed countries ask the developing countries to do many things for the global good like to stop cutting down forests etc. developed nations should also do something for the global good like keeping their own waste. Even in1994, India was once again firm at the Second Basel Convention Conference of Parties and advocated ban on all hazardous waste exports from the world’s most industrialized countries, the members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to non-industrialized countries like India. Only in 1995, it revised its position at the Third Basel Conference of Parties under the influence of representatives of the US and Australia. It said “We are against environmentally unfriendly recycling. We are not against the movement of waste, provided the recipient has adequate equipment, facility and the proper process to deal with it.” It also did not ratify the ‘Ban Amendment’ to the Basel Convention, which could have stopped the import of hazardous waste and stopped India from becoming a leading dumping ground. Lastly, at the Bali Conference on the Basel Convention in 2008 India, under the influence of Commerce Ministry, it stated that India sees hazardous waste as recyclable material and has adopted the policy of free trade in hazardous waste (unmindful of its environmental and human cost).
We should re-think again on the long term impacts of the toxic waste on health of land, water and air. Let us first deal with our own problem of waste management. We should again ask rich countries to “keep their own waste” for global common good. Let us not become the waste destination of the entire world. The export of hazardous waste for disposal in developing countries represents environmental injustice on a global scale and encouraging import of such waste with little or no capacity to safely recycle or dispose of the waste represents crime at local level. We have to think beyond the short term economic growth at the cost ecological integrity, failing to do so will bear irreversible consequences. We must take the steps required to close the regulatory gaps that encourage hazardous waste industry to prefer monitory benefit over human health and environment.
Source: This article was a result of our small interview-talk with Ms. Bhavna Karki on Global Hazardous Waste Management practices and its impact on Health & Environment worldwide. Bhavna Karki is a well-known environmental professional and a leading expert in environment, eco-art, climate change and disaster management field. She has several years of experience working in the field of environment management, disaster risk reduction, climate change and law and policy with agencies like United Nations Development Programme(UNDP) India, State Government of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and other NGOs in various capacities.
--- Newswine Reporter