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Are Hazardous Wastes and Hazardous Materials Synonymous?

Written By Gopal Krishna on Saturday, November 10, 2007 | 9:13 AM

No, said Supreme Court and Basel Convention. Yes, says Ministry of Environment & Forests

Proposed Hazardous Rules makes India least resistant to global waste flow


Startled by the proposed Draft Hazardous Materials (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2007 of Ministry of Environment & Forests currently headed by the Prime Minister, environment and public health researchers and activists have termed it as a gross act of linguistic corruption to satiate hazardous waste traders’ naked lust for profit.

The proposed Rules propose to redefine "hazardous waste" as "hazardous material", contrary to the definition provided by the Supreme Court.

As per a notification signed by R.K.Vaish, Joint Secretary, Hazardous Substances Management Division, Ministry of Environment & Forests and dated 28 September 2007, the Ministry has announced its motive to amend the existing Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989 that too has been amended from time to time imposed restrictions and prescribed procedures for management, handling and disposal of hazardous wastes as per Supreme Court’s directions.

The notification reads, “after expiry of a period of sixty days form the date of publication of this notification in the Official Gazette; The objections or suggestions which may be received from any person in respect of the said draft rules before the period specified will be taken into consideration by the Central Government. Any person desirous of making any objection or suggestion with respect to the said draft rules may forward the same within the period so specified to the Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Paryavaran Bhawan, Central Government Offices Complex, New Delhi-110003.”

In manifest contempt of court’s directions, the proposed Rules entails exempting the transit countries from providing prior informed consent for all shipments of hazardous waste to India. What is baffling is that the proposal states that as long as a material contains less than 60% contamination by a hazardous constituent, then it is eco-friendly and safe for our ecology. Waste asbestos imports are banned unless they are embedded in the structure. The proposed Rules are a product of those Development fundamentalists who advocate “Economic Growth at any cost”-by poisoning and polluting human body, wildlife and environment- due to the dictates of unbridled market forces and trade.

The apex court in its landmark judgment made the position unambiguously clear. It says, “Hazardous Wastes are highly toxic in nature. The industrialization has had the effect of generation of huge quantities of hazardous wastes. These and other side effects of development gave birth to principles of sustainable development so as to sustain industrial growth. The hazardous waste required adequate and proper control and handling. Efforts are required to be made to minimise it. In developing nations, there are additional problems including that of dumping of hazardous waste on their lands by some of the nations where cost of destruction of such waste is felt very heavy. These and other allied problems gave birth to Basel Convention. The key objectives of the Basel Convention are: “ 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.”

The court further noted, “…the hazardous wastes situation in India is fairly grim. Hazardous wastes, found dumped in the open environment have been the cause of widespread pollution of ground water, creating drought-like situations in areas traditionally not lacking in water suppliers. Public hearings conducted by the High Power Committee on Hazardous Wastes (HPC) in several cities brought forward pleas and representations of distress from affected victims and harsh complaints about lack of response from statutory authorities. The authorities appear to have ignored several warnings, reports, investigations and studies that highlighted zones of ecological degradation due to indiscriminate dumping and disposal of hazardous wastes. The High Power Committee on Hazardous Wastes noted that there was a lack of policy and vision at the highest level. This has resulted in a very poor management system. This situation cannot be allowed to continue.”

In effect, the proposed Rules a formal announcement of globalization of the toxic chemical crisis. The co-opted silence and self-serving lip-service of a section of environmental outfits who swear by environmental justice is starkly evident. As long as there is corporate funding to political parties such unjust and barbaric acts of quid pro quo will always be attempted.

It creates a unique moment for all the environment, public health, human rights and civil rights institutions, academicians, activists, NGOs and trade unions to join hands in opposition to toxic trade in toxic wastes, toxic products and toxic technologies, that are sought to be exported from rich countries to India and resist a similar trend within the country as well.

There is no alternative to corporate accountability; waste management through clean production and reduction in the use of toxics chemicals through life cycle assessment, precautionary principle, eco-design, extended producers’ responsibility and polluter pays principle.

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Waste follows the path of least resistance

The Environment Ministry, at least since 1995, has been guilty of numerous acts of omission and commission

After hazardous wastes, now it’s municipal and hospital wastes. It is not that we did not know about it but the condemnation from the Union Health Minister is noteworthy since it shows how waste is flowing from the North to the South as a global trend.

This underlines the importance of Prior Informed Consent. Although the custom officials of the Kochi port deserve appreciation unlike the officials at Alang port in Gujarat who have continued to let hazardous waste enter Indian waters with impunity. In Kochi, three containers sent from New York based Belsun Corporation in the name of recycling had medical wastes, municipal, surgical, bio-medical and even e-waste.

As in Kochi, at Alang too the ship named Blue Lady (SS Norway) that was allowed anchorage on humanitarian grounds admittedly has a huge amount of hazardous wastes such as asbestos, radioactive material, incineration ash, ballast water, PCBs, heavy metals.

But due to the lame and hollow excuse of the supposed irreversibility of the ship offered by Gopal Subramaniam, Additional Solicitor General, it remains there, although Prof. M.G.K. Menon, Chairman, High Power Committee on Hazardous Wastes, had recommended that it be sent back. In this case the company in question is Star Cruise Ltd that has so far successfully attempted to escape its decontamination cost in the aftermath of boiler explosion of 2003 in Miami.

In March 2007, Bhagvatsinh Haubha Gohil, sarpanch of Sosiya, Tehsil Talaja, Gujarat, filed an application on behalf of 12 sarpanchs and 30,000 people who live within the distance of 1 to 25 km from the ship breaking yard at Alang before the Justice Balakrishnan bench, which listed the matter for hearing before the Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice S.H. Kapadia bench in the Blue Lady case.

These people largely depend on seafood that is under threat from ship-breaking. The ship in question contains a large amount of asbestos that poses a huge risk to the villagers. Their application is yet to be heard although the final orders were passed on September 11. The 45-year old, 315-metre long and 16-storey asbestos laden toxic ship still has radioactive material at more than 1,000 places.

Accident rate

The hazardous waste generating ship-breaking industry is already known to have a higher accident rate (2 workers per 1,000) than the mining industry (0.34 per 1,000). This is considered the worst in the world, and 16 per cent of the workers here are suffering from asbestos related diseases. In its order on September 11, the Supreme Court advanced “the concept of ‘balance’ under the principle of proportionality applicable in the case of sustainable development…” and ruled:

“It cannot be disputed that no development is possible without some adverse effect on the ecology and environment, and the projects of public utility cannot be abandoned and it is necessary to adjust the interest of the people as well as the necessity to maintain the environment. A balance has to be struck between the two interests. Where the commercial venture or enterprise would bring in results which are far more useful for the people, difficulty of a small number of people has to be bypassed. The comparative hardships have to be balanced and the convenience and benefit to a larger section of the people has to get primacy over comparatively lesser hardship.”

This is the logic advanced by the Union Environment Ministry that makes India a dumping ground of developed countries. At least since 1995, this Ministry has been guilty of numerous acts of omission and commission that endanger environmental health. It is the respondent in the hazardous wastes case and has been fined by the apex court for dereliction of duty.

By not hearing the matter of gross illegality committed by Riky, the Danish ship and by condoning the entry of Blue Lady in Indian territorial waters in violation of court’s own orders of October 14, 2003 and September 6, 2007, all relevant international laws such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal have been violated besides international labour conventions and treaties — that govern the breaking of contaminated ships — to all of which India is a signatory.

The condemnation by the Health Ministry makes a case for the merger of the Environment Ministry with it because it is more concerned about the environmental health of the citizens.

4 November, 2007
The Hindu
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