After gold, silver and electronics in the 1970s and 1980s, India has emerged as a favoured destination for yet another form of smuggled products in the current decade -- Chloroflourocarbons or CFCs, which are slotted for a phaseout in less than three years from now.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that has organised an international ozone conference in Bhutan's salubrious capital, India is facing a smuggling problem due to the high prices for CFCs. "The international price for CFCs is about $2 per kilo while in India it is $6 or $7. This provides enough incentive for the smugglers to target India," say sources.
The situation is bizarre since India is one of the bigger manufacturers and exporters of CFCs. India produces nearly 6,000 tonnes of CFCs and the domestic demand is only 1,000 tonnes. The balance is exported to countries in South Asia, Latin America and Africa. But as there are only four manufacturers of CFCs in India, there are fears that they have formed a cartel to keep the prices unnaturally high within India and as a result make it a smugglers' haven.
But UNEP fears that what is happening in India may be replicated elsewhere especially as the deadline for the phasing out of CFCs approaches. Now, the international community is gearing up to face this new challenge, not quite envisioned in the Montreal Protocol.
To counter this rather unexpected development, the OzonAction Unit of UNEP has launched an aggressive counter-smuggling project called project Skyhole Patching.
In less than six months since the project was launched, it has already been bearing fruits, leading to over 10 seizures of nearly 65 tonnes of Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) across the Asia-Pacific region.
According to Atul Bagai of UNEP's Bangkok office, the main seizures have taken place in China, India and Thailand. The Chinese Customs seized 8.2 tonnes of Dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC-12), used in refrigerant and air conditioning systems, in the Guandong Province and in West Bengal, Indian Customs seized nearly 6 tonnes of illegal CFCs and 49 tonnes of illegal ODS were seized from other countries participating in the project.
Project Skyhole Patching, to combat illegal trade in ODS and hazardous waste in the Asia Pacific region began in September 2006. It involves 20 customs and environmental authorities from 18 countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Viet Nam.
Since the project began, customs in Hong Kong, India and Thailand have played an active role in sharing information on ODS, say UNEP officials.
Bagai said in Thimphu, on the sidelines of an international ozone conference, that encouraged by the success in combating the illegal trade in ODS, Skyhole Patching is now being broadened to include hazardous chemicals which are banned under the Basel Convention.
According to UNEP, illegal trade in CFCs and other ODS is expected to grow as a complete ban is enforced. It is believed that trade in illegal ODS can be up to 20 percent of all trade in ODS. But Bagai says that the large number of seizures indicates better monitoring rather than a steep rise in smuggling.