Every now and again comes a survey based on obscure parameters that causes us to pat ourselves on the back. So the latest from National Geographic saying Indians and Brazilians care most for the environment is bound to trigger a round of self-congratulation. This despite the fact that low-energy consumption and participating in green rallies are among the conditions that we have fulfilled. Our touching concern for the environment can be seen in a report on the same day the survey surfaced of the appalling conditions in which workers function at India’s largest ship dismantling yard in Alang, Gujarat. The controversial site has long been the target of environmentalists for its total disregard for workers’ safety. Ships which come to be broken here often contain toxic materials. The latest one, SS Oceanic, is on its way, circumventing the Basel Convention which prohibits industrialised countries from dumping toxic waste in developing countries.
Alang has one of the worst safety standards in the world with a high worker fatality rate. In 1997, the Supreme Court had banned the import of toxic waste into India. But that has not stopped unscrupulous importers from bringing in waste under the guise of recycling. Of particular concern is the amount of electronic waste coming in — Delhi processes 20,000 tonnes a year — the byproducts of which are dangerous metals like cadmium, thallium and lead among others. Alang’s workers are meant to wear protective clothing when tackling toxic ships but so far they seem to be left to do the job with their bare hands. Most of those who survive suffer severe respiratory ailments and skin disorders. Also, many of the toxic metals and compounds stay in the soil and water for decades, contaminating the lives of successive generations.
But, the government seems far more interested in picking up selective studies to prove its green credentials. We keep blaming the West for the world’s environmental problems. Perhaps our complaints would carry a little more credibility if we were to put our own house in order first.