Under international law, importing Cobalt-60, the radioactive metal that set off West Delhi’s radiation scare, is forbidden without permission from the government.
But according to India’s Hazardous Wastes Rules of 1989, compounds that contain Cobalt can be imported, depending on how much Cobalt they contain. Cobalt metal scrap can be imported without restrictions.
The problem is that most forms of Cobalt look the same: silver metal with tinges of blue or pink.
In order to distinguish between regular metal scrap and radioactive material, authorities would need to install radiation scanning machines at India's ports. This wouldn’t be very hard to do. Hazardous waste — originating mainly from the United States and Europe — enters India through six main ports, and radiation scanning technology exists and isn't very expensive.
But most Indian ports don’t have such scanners. Instead, customs agents and the hundreds of workers who process hazardous waste rely on their eyes to tell the difference.
In the last three years, India’s hazardous waste import increased by 48 per cent.
Last year, 6.4 million tonnes of hazardous waste came from the West to India (and 5.9 million tonnes was produced domestically).
Much of this waste was metal, electronics and plastics. An unknown amount of it may have been contaminated with lead, mercury and other toxins, which can cause chronic illness and environmental damage.
In theory, the government is supposed to monitor the import of hazardous waste, which enters India through a loophole in the law that allows the import of waste for recycling, although not for disposal.
In reality, almost no monitoring is happening.
Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told Parliament last week that the customs department did not have the facilities to prevent dangerous waste from entering India, and suggested that the ministry stop all unrestricted waste imports.
But under a set of rules passed by Ramesh’s own ministry, the import of hazardous waste is about to get easier. In a March 30 note, the environment ministry said the waste management sector is too unorganised to allow for central regulation, and tossed all responsibility to state governments. But states claim they too lack the resources to deal with such waste.
Business is booming
In northeast Delhi’s Seelampur, the streets were once dominated by cardboard resellers and butcher shops. Now, an entire alley has been taken over by electronics resellers.
“Seelampur is the biggest market in India for second-hand electronic parts," said Rahim Ahmad (31). One step up from the dusty lane, Ahmad’s two warehouses burst with discarded hard drives and ragged motherboards. He estimates that parts worth Rs 10,000 move through his shop each day.
He says he is registered and pays taxes, but there are dozens of such warehouses. Fewer than 5,000 of India’s waste processing units are registered with the government as authorised recyclers.
The success of the informal sector has discouraged legal recyclers.
“They (informal sector businesses) get 95 per cent of the business. They pay more because they don't have to bear the cost to meet en-vironment norms,” said Ram Ramachan-dran, managing director of Tef-aman India, one of the 15 authorised electronic waste recyclers in India.
When a court order shut down all plastics burning in Seelampur five years ago, the industry merely shifted eight kilometres east.
Four years ago, Bhojpur was a small farming village. Now, thanks to a crackdown on brass and aluminium extracting units in Moradabad town in Uttar Pradesh, it has become Moradabad district’s biggest unauthorised recycling zone. Entire families burn plastic in their homes, sifting the ash for grains of brass that they sell to local dealers.
“India could have prevented this surge had it ratified a 2002 amendment in the Basel Convention (a global treaty on trade in waste), which bans the trade of waste for recycling,” said Gopal Krishnan, of the NGO Toxic Watch Alliance. India signed the Basel Convention, which prohibits international trade in hazardous materials, in 1990.
One obvious solution — banning all waste imports — will provide temporary relief. India has the capacity to handle just 30 per cent of its domestic waste. “Our capacity to treat hazardous waste is not growing at the same pace as waste generation,” admitted S.P. Gautam, chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board, the Centre's pollution authority. Gautam favours shutting hazardous industries to encourage more recyclers to register.
But at what cost?
Although recycling industries are temporarily profitable, the damage to the environment is often permanent. Near Moradabad, the waters of the once-fertile Ramganga river have turned black with grainy plastic ash.
Delhi’s radioactive scare may have originated from Delhi University, but unless we re-examine how hazardous waste is treated, the danger it poses — both homegrown and imported — is real and present.