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Recycling what the world throws away

Written By mediavigil on Thursday, April 22, 2010 | 11:59 AM

The metal scrap industry in India is booming, having grown at least 27% from 2007-08 to 2008-09

Mandi Gobindgarh (Punjab) / New Delhi: Ranveer Jaidka takes pride in his work. “There is a little bit of steel in everybody’s life,” he says, smilingly appropriating the tag line of an advertisement.

Skipping gingerly across a blackened factory floor, strewn with practically every sort of scrap from spent shock absorbers and refrigerator doors to crank shafts and bent cycle rims, he proclaims that nothing is waste. Jaidka’s factory in Mandi Gobindgarh, Punjab, is one of the 150-odd factories that recycle metal scrap from around the world.

“The WTC (World Trade Center) material was great. High-rise buildings use good quality steel,” he says, adding that many factories in Mandi Gobindgarh had bought the debris of the twin towers after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As much as 15% of the scrap used at Jaidka’s unit is imported. But for an industry that recycles hundreds of tonnes of imported metal scrap every year, information on and control over what comes in and where it is used, is surprisingly low.

Recently, Cobalt 60 discovered in scrap at a Delhi scrapyard caused an outbreak of radiation poisoning and raised questions on monitoring, worker safety and the environmental impact of imported scrap of all kinds. The Mayapuri episode was, however, not an isolated incident.

On 30 September 2004, a blast ripped through the factory of Bhushan Steel Ltd in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. Ten workers were killed and a few others injured. An inquiry showed the scrap that Bhushan Steel had imported through a Dubai-based trader contained live ammunition that exploded when it was being melted.

There was a flurry of activity from the administration, new rules were created and the factories in the area inspected. But the situation soon reverted to normal—Bhushan Steel, with a market capitalization of Rs7,580 crore, has become one of the largest importers of steel scrap in the country.

A group of angry workers affiliated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions gathers at their union office in Sahibabad. Upendra Jha of the union maintains that accidents at steel factories are still common. “There have been three in the last six months,” he says. Most accidents, he adds, are not reported.

Occupational hazards

War zone: Mandi Gobindgarh in Punjab has 150-odd factories that recycle metal scrap from world over and notches an average of two accidents a month. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
War zone: Mandi Gobindgarh in Punjab has 150-odd factories that recycle metal scrap from world over and notches an average of two accidents a month. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
According to Jha, few of the at least 100 industrial units here, which make everything from detergents to paper, have any safety measures for the workers. “70% of them don’t even have any provision for water for the workers,” he points out.
Though the situation is slightly better for a few workers at Gobindgarh near the induction furnaces where they wear plastic glasses and wrap cloth around their faces as protection against the heat and fumes, other waste handlers are not much better off.

Mukesh Kumar, a labourer who unloads scrap from containers, said: “How would we know what is inside? We will only know after we open it to unload.”

The steel scrap that comes into these factories is an unsorted mix of steel, contaminants such as lead and cadmium, and the occasional unexploded ordnance. Shock absorbers also demand special handling. “Shockers have pressurized motor oil inside them. If not removed, they can explode in the furnaces,” says Jaidka. The oil that’s removed is sometimes used in the furnace, he says. The US Environmental Protection Agency categorizes used motor oil as hazardous waste.

Smoke and emissions from the approximately 600 chimneys in Gobindgarh contain high levels of air pollutants. A 2007 study on air pollution and cardiovascular health published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported increased levels of different pollutants and the higher prevalence of cardiovascular symptoms in Mandi Gobindgarh than in the neighbouring non-industrial town of Morinda.

War-zone scrap

Mandi Gobindgarh has also had its own share of explosions due to live ammunition mixed in with imported metal scrap. Lalit Mohan Sharma, manager at Prem Steel and Metals Pvt. Ltd in Gobindgarh, says that scrap from war-torn countries is the cheapest. “In that sense, Saddam did a good thing,” he laughs.

Jaidka adds that some plants have stopped importing from war zones because of the unexploded ammunition and missiles in the scrap leading to accidents. “There are a few stray cases now here and there. If found, they usually dump it in the nearby river,” he says. Jitender Singh Bhatti, deputy director for factories in the district, however, says the local administration issues a quarterly notification asking factories to inform the local police and administration in case live shells
or bombs are found.

Scrap for Jaidka’s unit comes mainly from South Africa and Dubai. Dubai undergoes massive construction and de-construction, which generates large amounts of steel and iron scrap.

The material is sorted manually on the factory premises by contract labourers, who form the bulk of the workforce.

According to data available with the Ghaziabad district administration, Bhushan Steel has permission to employ up to 500 labourers.

Workers say, however, that it employs nearly 4,000.

Bhushan Steel refused to let a Mint reporter into its factory and did not respond to telephone and email queries.

On paper at least, the factories are subject to regular inspections. The first time Mint spoke to him, Y.P. Singh, deputy director (factories), Ghaziabad, said they were inspected twice a year. “The factories here have installed machines to scan scrap,” he maintained.

But on a subsequent occasion he clarified that the machines installed at the units were just “presses” that compressed the scrap so that parts such as car shock absorbers did not explode when they were melted. How is unexploded ordinance dealt with? “You will have to ask the factory owners,” he said.

End of inspector raj
What have the periodic factory inspections shown? “The state government issued a circular in January 2010, which put an end to the inspections. I think the idea was to end the inspector raj that factory owners were complaining about,” he said. “We can now only inspect a factory with the permission of the district magistrate, and that too if we have credible evidence.”

The Punjab department of industries has a different story to tell. Bhatti says that his district has not employed a single inspector since 1996.

“Punjab has about 20-22 districts with only six officers for inspections. Every officer is in charge of four to five districts. We can maximum do 20 inspections per month and Mandi alone has 600 factories. I am in charge of 1,500 factories. You can imagine what that means. One factory probably gets inspected once in five years,” explains Bhatti, whose department is responsible for labour welfare, health and safety. He adds that the International Labour Organization recommends 150 factories maximum to one inspector to ensure adequate monitoring. Gobindgarh notches an average of two accidents a month.

The situation is not very different at the ship-breaking yards at Alang in Gujarat. It’s boom time there, with over 190 ships beached at the yards and at least 60,000 migrant workers busy dismantling them.

‘It’s a joke’
There have been 12 major accidents in the last four months alone, the last being a fire on 1 April that killed two workers. “What do you expect,” asks Rahul Tripathi, secretary of the Alang Sosiya Ship Recycling and General Workers Association. “90% of the workers here are illiterate and nearly all of them are untrained.” Workers are required to have training cards issued by the Gujarat Maritime Board. But according to Tripathi, these are issued after a day or two of training. “It’s a joke. The minimum training period for a general worker should be 15 days, and 25 days for a specialist,” he says.

Statistics on industrial safety in India are very unreliable. The Labour Institute and the Directorate General, Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI), both government-run bodies, are responsible for compiling them, but they’re dependent on states to provide them with data. “Over the last 30 years, several states like West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have consistently not submitted industrial workers accident data,” says A.K. Chakraborti, director general of DGFASLI. “There are many shortcomings in our data systems.”

The metal scrap industry in India is booming, having grown at least 27% from 2007-08 to 2008-09 (from 3.5 million tonnes, or mt, to 4.4 mt, from more than 75 countries). Mandi Gobindgarh, which Jaidka says supplies approximately 6% of India’s secondary steel market, is at the heart of this expansion. Bhatti says he gets applications for at least three-four new units every month and 30-35 units are on the waiting list, pending electricity connections.

“This builds bridges, towers and your homes,” Jaidka yells over the din of the furnace. Wouldn’t it be more convenient if he lived near his factory? “Who can live here? It’s too polluted.”

Padmaparna Ghosh and Akshai Jain
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