India is now the world's largest producer and smuggling source of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), the gas that has created holes in the earth's ozone layer, says a senior UN Environment Programme official.
Thanavat Junchaya, UNEP's regional network coordinator for its CFC project, said, "India now produces almost all the CFC that is still being produced in the world, and the amount it officially exports is frequently far lower than the amount reported by other countries to be imported from India.
"As much as 55 per cent of these goods are unaccounted for. After drugs, CFC is the most smuggled commodity."
CFCs have created a hole in the ozone layer on top of the earth's atmosphere and are not supposed to be manufactured by any country by the end of 2009, as per the 1987 Montreal Protocol. CFC, used as a refrigerant, has been phased out of use from most home refrigerators and air-conditioners around the world now. But there are still many car air-conditioners that continue to use CFC, despite rules to the contrary.
Industrialised countries have already phased out its manufacture, and many developing countries have done the same. With China ending exports last year and left with only one CFC producing plant, India and South Korea are the two major manufacturers left. UNEP estimates these two countries now account for over 70 per cent of global CFC production, which has come down from a million tonnes a year to 50,000.
As signatories to the Montreal Protocol, both India and South Korea are committed to ending CFC manufacture by January 1, 2010. Of the two countries, India now has the lion's share of CFC production.
Junchaya told IANS on the sidelines of a recent media workshop organised by UNEP in Singapore that a detailed study carried out in the Asia-Pacific region to trace CFC trade since 2000 had found CFC manufactured in India "being smuggled largely to Japan and Thailand, and to a lesser extent to Malaysia and Iran.
"Bangladesh, Nepal and Vietnam were also being used as transit countries by the smugglers."
The study, carried out for UNEP by Liu Ning from the customs department in China, had found that most often, the smugglers simply did not declare the entire amount of CFC being exported in a legal consignment - they declared far less.
Before China ended its CFC exports, it was as big a source of the smuggled gas as India, if not bigger, Junchaya said.
"Our study found that in 2004, nearly 51 per cent of legal exports from China and 47 per cent from India to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Iran are not found in the import statistics of the importing countries.
"That means over 4,000 tonnes of CFC were unaccounted for."
The study found the main routes used by smugglers were India/China-Vietnam-Laos/Cambodia-Thailand, followed by Bangladesh-India, Nepal-India, China-Philippines, China-Malaysia, China-Indonesia, Singapore-Malaysia and Malaysia-Thailand.
Junchaya said, "The smuggling is coming down as both exporting and importing countries become more aware of it. Earlier, customs inspectors had really no means of knowing if a gas cylinder marked as oxygen, for example, actually contains oxygen or CFC.
"Now UNEP has made them more aware and helped them use special testing equipment."
Rajendra Shende, chief of OzonAction in UNEP, said, "Through a number of initiatives like the Customs-Ozone Enforcement Networking Project and the Project Sky-Hole-Patching, countries' environment, ozone and customs authorities exchange information on the movement (of CFC). This has enabled countries to take action."
The number of seizures has gone up throughout Asia-Pacific, he added.
But CFC smuggling will remain an issue as long as substitutes continue to cost more and equipment using CFC are available, Shende said.