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India's Booming Toxic Waste Trade

by Ravi Agarwal

Children with blue nails and gums from lead poisoning
(UNNATI) NEW DELHI -- Rajinder Singh, 35, breaks imported used car batteries for a living. He pries them open and stacks the lead plates with his bare hands while his small, almost open furnace is fired to receive another batch.

Backyard smelters and plastic recycling units dot India's countryside, taking lead battery scrap and plastic waste imported from developed countries such as Australia and the United States. Three years ago the Central Pollution Control Board in Delhi had closed down 23 lead smelters because they were contaminating groundwater, cattle fodder and soil. Many of them sprang up again, this time in neighboring states. Smelters around Calcutta have caused stunted growth in children, limb deformations, blue gums, as well as cattle deaths owing to high lead levels, before their closure was ordered.

The backyard smelter where Rajinder Singh works is located on a small plot of land that once grew wheat. Some lead escaped as vapor and settled in the surrounding fields, where cows graze and villagers drink from the only village well. After years of existence, Rajinder's smelter was shut down when neighbors complained that the large number of cattle deaths there were a direct result of lead poisoning. Despite the closure, the fodder and the groundwater in this village are still contaminated as ever.

Zinc Ash is another commonly recycled imported waste. A byproduct of the large galvanizing process located in the developed world, about 60 thousand tons are imported into India every year. Much of it may be contaminated by toxic heavy metals such as lead, chromium and arsenic, exposing workers and neighbourhood residents to dangers such as possible explosions, toxic fumes and contaminated water. A study last year revealed that toxic sludge from such factories was regularly "discarded indiscriminately along the road or in open areas." The ash is converted to a fertilizer, using a process that adds its own pollution.

Unregulated backyard industry has very high profits
India is not the only country accepting hazardous waste from the weathier developed nations; according to the UN Environment Program, 10 million tons of toxic garbage cross international borders ever year. Rarely does it make news as it did this summer, when a plan to ship New York City garbage to Namibia was killed after wide criticism in the African press.

And despite the 1989 Basel Convention -- an international treaty currently signed by over 89 countries to regulate the business -- India's trade in hazardous waste endures. Loopholes and porous national borders make it easy to break the law. Srishti, a watchdog group, reveals that while only five companies had permits to import lead battery waste and zinc waste in 1994-95, about 150 illegal traders were active.

It was on the basis of such damning evidence that the Delhi High Court imposed a ban on the import of all toxic/hazardous wastes in 1996. Yet research by NGOs reveal that the waste still continues to come in, despite the a renewed ban issued last May by the Supreme Court of India. Owing to industry pressure, India has been vacillating on stricter enforcement.

The reasons why India continues to draw in the waste of developed countries are not difficult to find. High profit margins, owing to poor environmental regulation is a major factor. In developed countries, it is extremely expensive to get rid of such waste. Most lead smelters in the U.S. have been shut down, and those that remain can spend more than $10 million per year on pollution control alone.

In India's unregulated backyard smelter industry, there are very high profit margins. Indian traders thus outbid their European counterparts for such wastes in the international markets, paying almost 30 percent more for waste like zinc ash. Many other developing nations in Africa and Southeast Asia have stopped buying these hazardous wastes.

Recycling plastic from the West
In another village in Delhi, 26-year-old Chander Pal's hollow cheeks strain as he tells his woes in a weak voice. As a foreman in a shanty plastics recycling factory, he says plastic dust destroyed his body and he cannot breathe properly.

The factory which employs mostly women and children, does not have even a first-aid box, no ventilation or safety devices. Like the lead batteries, much of the plastic waste processed here is imported from the West.

Some workers have worked in this plastic-recycling factory most of their lives. Another man interviewed does not know his exact age ("Must be somewhere around 25," he shrugs), and it's equally hard to estimate. Hard work and long hours in unventilated rooms breathing fumes from melting plastics have taken a toll. His daughter was born deaf and dumb. His brother, who lives with him, suddenly started having seizures, despite no family history of related illness. The man blames it on the pollution caused by over 50 such plastics recycling units in his village.

Local authorities do not do much about these units. How can you prove that these plastic and lead recycling factories are causing these problems? They ask, dismissing such arguments. Studies are time consuming and expensive. So business continues for the owners, and villagers die a slow death.

During the past two years, as the local health clinic doctor confirms, there has been a sharp increase in lung disorders. Over 40 villagers are chronic asthamatics. There are not enough free bronchodilators to hand out.

India does not even have testing laboratories
It is difficult even for a developed country to stop such imports. In Singapore, for example, 14 million containers enter the country each year -- more than 38 thousand a day, which makes it impossible to inspect the contents of each. A poor country like India does not even have testing laboratories to distinguish between hazardous and non-hazardous waste consignments, nor well trained custom officials as are found in Singapore.

Yet some still hope that the Basel Ban might succeed because it's basically an export ban, putting the pressure on the developed country to either stop shipping toxics to the developeing world, or inform the importing country about each shipment.

Until now though, traders have proved to be very resourceful, resorting to unscrupulous practices such as misdeclaration of consignments or laundering documents by shipping them through still other countries.

Ravi Agarwal is an environment activist and writer

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Albion Monitor August 31, 1998 (

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