The Cobalt-60 radiation tragedy at Mayapuri in Delhi has unearthed many skeletons, which some seem to be desperate to hide. There is already a life lost, and maybe others irrevocably damaged, while everyone is busy hurling accusations at each other. This is a typical response. Instead, we need to examine the systemic problems that this incident has indicated. While those who were negligent must be punished, there are many questions that need to be answered. These relate to why this radioactive waste source was not on the regulatory radar. It is no secret that the nuclear establishment works in a garb of secrecy, and information is very restricted.
However, where public health is concerned, more assurance is needed. It has also become evident that our ports are porous to all kinds of waste, and there are no scanners to detect what comes in, nuclear or otherwise. Alongside, there seems to be no mechanism to track the illegal movement of radioactive materials through our transport systems. The dealers at the scrapyards have little information on how to detect such waste, or what to do in case of an accident. At the very least this incident calls for re-evaluating the tracking and monitoring of such disused radioactive materials and improving public communication.
Moreover, it is important to understand the larger issue of hazardous waste. It is well-known that we are one of the largest waste-importing economies in the world. All types of wastes are imported into India, in the garb of cheap raw materials, including hazardous, toxic wastes. Waste recyclers abroad take pride in sending used plastics and electronics to India, believing they are doing us a favour. Data released by the Customs department reveal imports of even prohibited wastes like clinical waste, incineration ash, municipal waste and e-waste, all of which exceed 50 lakh tonnes annually. This is common knowledge in the recycling markets of Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. The government, however, says it has no idea about this. On the contrary, environment ministry officials have publicly stated that they wish to make India the waste recycling capital of the world. Real concerns about the inherent toxicity in the waste contaminating our water and land, or the disastrous implications of becoming a ‘waste economy,’ are not being addressed.
The manufacturing sector in India is growing at over 8 per cent annually, making India one of the largest hubs of chemical, petrochemical and textile industries in the world. However, the government’s manpower or budgets to track and monitor the disposal of waste from over 36,000 authorised industrial units and over 3 million small scale units, have not increased over the years. Look at the estimates of waste generation. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report and other sources, over 7 million tonnes of industrial hazardous waste, 4 lakh tonnes of electronic waste, 1.5 million tonnes of plastic waste, 1.7 lakh tonnes of medical waste, 48 million tonnes of municipal waste laced with mercury lamps, batteries and pesticides are generated in the country annually, in addition to the imports. These are conservative figures and growing. However, there is no official data on this, simply because there has never been any attempt to collect it.
The impact is there for all to see. The Central Pollution Control Board has identified over 88 critically polluted industrial zones, most of which are clustered in the most-industrialised states like Gujarat and Maharashtra. Several of them are beyond repair. All of our 14 river systems are polluted. Groundwater in many places contains toxins like the deadly hexavalent chromium and heavy metals, and studies have shown contamination of crops through industrial effluents. Again there is no data or any study ever commissioned to identify the scale of such impact.
The states have notified a set of hazardous waste laws over the past 10 years and built 25-odd hazardous waste disposal facilities after the Supreme Court directed them to do so. However, the CAG report lays bare the real ground situation. It found that over 75 per cent of state bodies were not implementing these laws. In fact, there is no single responsible person anywhere in the government who is routinely monitoring the situation. Unfortunately, there is more attention given towards granting authorisations and licences for imports and clearances, rather than to develop a system of monitoring and accountability.
Implementation is said to be India’s Achilles heel. Is it really so? Implementation is left to the vagaries of the system, rather than any efforts made to enable it. For example, none of our waste laws demand implementation targets, or maintain a database about progress made, or have any accompanying plans about how the required infrastructure will be built. Public information about levels of compliance is also not available.
With all this missing, lamenting the lack of implementation becomes merely a way of passing the buck. In hindsight, the Cobalt-60 incident may have been no accident, it may only have been waiting to happen.
Ravi Agarwal is Director, Toxics Link
The views expressed by the author are personal