At sunset, the sky above Ram Ganga river in Moradabad, 200 km from Delhi, turns black with smog. Tiny chimneys belch smoke, the result of hundreds of small waste processing plants that residents have opened in their homes.
<b1>A huge waste processing accident in Delhi, where one person died and seven were taken ill after radiation exposure, has caught the media’s attention. But far from the media glare, five million of the country’s poorest are exposed to hazardous waste — including radioactive — every day as India turns into the wasteland of the world.
In the last three years, India’s hazardous waste import spiked 48 per cent. Last year, the developed world dumped 64 lakh tonnes of waste in India, adding to the 59 lakh tonnes produced domestically.
Shipments of discarded plastic, electronics and metal enter India through six major ports, where port and customs officials lack the wherewithal to check them. Agents truck the waste to villages and industrial towns where it is taken apart. The agents then buy these components and sell them to the makers of second-hand goods. The finished products end up in markets all over India.
Along the way, hundreds handle the waste, often with their bare hands.
“We have no option,” said Irfan Hasan, 35, whose family started burning plastic waste at home a year ago. Farming brings in Rs 20,000 per year, burning plastic Rs 12,000-15,000 a month. Everyone in the family coughs constantly from breathing the poisonous fumes.
India’s waste disposal industry is one of the world's largest. But less than 5,000 recycling units are registered. Most businesses operate informally, away from any regulation.
There are only 16 firms registered to handle hazardous waste, said SP Gautam, chairman, Central Pollution Control Board. India has a capacity to treat only one-third of its domestic hazardous waste.
HT surveyed scrap dealers all over Delhi and UP. Most said they were satisfied after a cursory glance at incoming material. “We look to see if something is safe,” said Umar Drad (80), who owns a metal scrapyard in Mandoli.
With no safety mechanism in place, disease isn’t far behind. “People who handle industrial waste that hasn't been treated properly suffer radiation, cancer and blood disorders,” said Bir Singh, professor of community medicine at AIIMS. Many suffer subtle symptoms, so doctors don’t always make the connection, said Singh.
In 2003, a SC-appointed panel asked the government to open medical facilities for workers. “None of the recommendations have been implemented,” said Gopal Krishnan of the NGO Toxic Watch.
Outside Drad’s office, Nafiz Ahmed (48) is among the workers burning metal. His only protection is the handkerchief over his head. Asked if he is afraid for his health, he says: “We are used to working like this.”