State governments, and not the Centre, will be responsible for tracking hazardous waste that crosses their borders, according to a circular issued by the Union environment ministry.
According to the Hazardous Wastes (Handling and Transboundary movement) Rules, the states will be solely responsible for tracking more than 100 metals, including lanthanum and yttrium, many of which can become radioactive.
The Centre issued the circular six days before eight persons from Mayapuri were hospitalised after being exposed to toxic material that the authorities had failed to detect.
States, however, said they did not have resources to perform such checks. “We can only give advisories to traders for ensuring safety,” said Siddhanth Das, member secretary of the Orissa Pollution Control Board, which receives imported hazardous waste for industries in Sukinda from West Bengal. “We don’t have the capacity to check every piece of scrap coming in and regulate the trade.”
A scientist with the Central Pollution Control Board, India’s main pollution watchdog, admitted that most state pollution boards did not have enough specialists to enforce the new rules.
Other states said the responsibility belonged to the Centre, specifically customs.
“It is the job of customs to ensure nothing dangerous enters India,” said N.K. Singh, nodal officer for hazardous waste with the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, which the new rules hold responsible for regulating metal scrap. “We have to register a trader for allowing imports. We can’t check scrap.”
Cobalt-60, the radioactive material in Mayapuri, was found in a scrap dealer’s godown.
Customs officials said they lacked the manpower to check every container of scrap, nor was it their job. “If all papers are in order, the import is allowed,” an official said.
Around 3,000-4,000 tonnes of metal scrap enter India every day through six major ports. The scrap is distributed to dealers across the country.
According to the new rules, a trader registered with the state pollution board can import metal scrap without prior consent. Before granting registration, the state must check if the trader has proper facilities to safely store hazardous
Ministry sources insisted the new rules were meant for public safety. “It was done to make hazardous waste rules more effective as the ministry sitting in Delhi cannot find what a trader in Gujarat or Tamil Nadu is importing,” an official explained.
“Decentralisation is good,” said Ravi Aggarwal of NGO Toxic Link, though he doubted whether state pollution boards could take on the task.