Print edition : June 04, 2010

WORKERS DISMANTLE THE decommissioned ship Blue Lady at the Alang shipyard in Gujarat in October 2007. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board does not have enough infrastructure to detect radioactive material in scrap metal imports.-AMIT DAVE/REUTERS

THE recent radiological accident in New Delhi's Mayapuri scrap metal market has raised many questions about the level of monitoring of hazardous waste in India. That India is fast becoming a waste dump in a globalised economy makes these questions even more relevant.

Has the government put in place enough infrastructure and institutions to monitor the movement of hazardous waste, both imported and domestically generated? Are there institutions that can be held accountable in cases such as the Mayapuri radiation leak? And, finally, are there appropriate pieces of legislation to check the flow of hazardous waste into the country?

Unfortunately, monitoring mechanisms are near to none. Ravi Agarwal of Toxics Link, an environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO), says that though there are many government bodies that oversee waste management in the country, none of them is effective in controlling, or powerful enough to control, the movement of hazardous waste such as cobalt-60 (Co-60).

Institutions such as the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board [AERB] or the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC], which are regulatory bodies for radioactive materials, do not have any mechanism to detect their presence in scrap metal imported by India. Not just imports, but once a metal has been turned into scrap, there is no way to trace the presence of radioactive material generated domestically.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests [MoEF] has become a policy-making and licensing body. The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre [BARC] is just a certification agency. The AERB, which is the main regulatory body, does not have enough infrastructure to detect radioactive material in scrap metal imports. The Customs Department has neither the interest nor the competence to check for radioactive and other hazardous waste.

This is not the first time that people have been inadvertently exposed to radiation in India. In 2004, people were exposed to radioactive materials found in ammunition imported from Iraq as scrap by Bhusan Steel Plant, Ghaziabad. Similarly, in 2006, there were reports that Blue Lady, a ship that came to Alang in Gujarat to be dismantled, had radioactive material. An inspection committee, however, dismissed the reports.

The fact that the waste industry is growing unchecked has its implications for finished products as well. In the aftermath of the Mayapuri incident, Brajesh Kumar Singh, an AERB official, told Frontline: In our inspections, we found that even within the scrap metal industry, the dealers who are most prone to radiation are stainless steel dealers.

This has been proved true: In 2007, Germany reported finding radioactive steel coming from India; the French nuclear safety agency also reported that some of the buttons in their elevators were emitting radiation and that they were made of recycled steel from India. This was reported to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In August 2008, a vessel from India containing steel bars to be transported to Russia was intercepted in Hamburg, Germany, and was declared to have very high radioactivity levels.

Prabir Purkayastha, of the Delhi Science Forum, wrote on May 1: For months, similar cases have been found across Germany, all involving bits of metal contaminated with radioactive cobalt. And most of them came from the same source: three steelworks in India, in particular a company called Vipras Casting, based in Mumbai. Later, reports indicated that apart from Vipras Casting, there were another five companies involved. They were Bunts, Laxmi Steels, SMK Steels, Pradeep Metals, and Goradia Special Steels Ltd.

Despite all this, there is a systemic absence of any monitoring mechanism, says Ravi Agarwal. The uniqueness of the metal scrap industry is that there is no actual user. In all other kinds of imports, only the actual user can import and thus will have to be accountable. But in the case of metal scrap, following the trail is almost impossible. In the Mayapuri case, after Delhi University sold the gamma irradiator to scrap trade, the instrument changed at least four hands. The first user segregated the iron and then gave it to a lead dealer, who in turn sold it to four other dealers. In such a situation, all the agencies try to pass the buck.

Before the Co-60 in Mayapuri was traced to the university's chemistry laboratory, S. Banerjee, Chairman of the AEC said, Whatever happened in Delhi has nothing to do with the activities of my department. Scrap materials come from other countries and it is not possible for the Department of Atomic Energy to check at the entry points if there are any radioactive materials in them. Checking all the containers laden with scrap is not possible. Instead, scanning can be done. While a decision to install scanners has been taken, implementation is taking time. Thus, according to the AEC, it is not responsible for the radioactive material mixed in imported scrap.

Evading responsibility

However, Prabir Purkayastha writes in a news website: According to Dr A. Gopalkrishnan, former Chairman, AERB, the AEC Chairman's position is not in conformity with the constitutional responsibilities that AEC and its subordinate institutions have. Under the country's law, the Atomic Energy Act of 1962, it is their responsibility, and this is an attempt by AEC and AERB to evade their legal responsibilities. If we take into account that AEC and AERB have been fully aware of the risk of imported radioactive scrap, their evasion of responsibilities becomes even more glaring.

Says Ravi Agarwal: The government should immediately come up with a plan and budget for an institution which will be in charge of monitoring. Once import monitoring is done, one can become strict with the agencies that use radioactive instruments. There are primarily four places where such instruments are used, namely, nuclear medicine, nuclear imaging, and nuclear therapy, apart from nuclear reactors. From the first three, scrap and waste can be generated frequently as radioactive materials have short lives.

At present, India has the Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling, and Transboundary Movement) Rules, drafted in 1988. However, it mentions no rules regarding the monitoring of radioactive waste, the responsibility of which is given to the AEC and its sibling, the AERB.

So where does the problem lie? Is it at the monitoring level or at the policy level? While the MoEF is the overall policymaking body for the import of hazardous waste, the Commerce Ministry is the main force behind encouraging the waste industry. A political economy around the scrap industry has developed in the last decade, especially after 1991.

Gopal Krishna, convener of Toxics Watch Alliance, elaborates: We are barking up the wrong tree when we criticise the Environment Ministry. While it is a party to what is happening, it is the Commerce Ministry, which is encouraging the waste industry in India and actively cooperating with the developed world to make India a leading dump yard.

It is a simple principle. Something that is waste in other countries is waste for us too. But the constant support to the import of waste by the Commerce Ministry is what we should now focus on. Whenever an incident such as Mayapuri happens, I remember Lawrence Summers, once Vice-President of the World Bank and now President of the Economic Council of the U.S. He said that it makes impeccable economic logic to transport hazardous waste to developing countries.

It must be noted that in the U.S. and in Europe, there are strict norms for monitoring the waste industry. The U.S. even takes punitive measures against environmental criminals. Gopal Krishna says that the environment movement across the world, since the Stockholm Conference in 1972, has seen a gradual separation of economic and environmental issues issues that are non-economic in nature and there lies the problem.

Basel Convention

He says that in the 1970s and 1980s, the pollution norms and occupational hazards awareness in India were much higher than today. The government had a strategy behind this. The Basel Convention [that adopted strict norms for transboundary movement of hazardous waste] came into force in 1992. India had a very healthy and simple stand then. In the first Conference of Parties, India told the developed world, which was lobbying for dumping waste in the developing world, to keep its own waste.

However, there was an attempt by big hazardous waste recyclers in India to reverse the principle. As a result, in 1995, at the Geneva Conference, under pressure by the U.S. and Australia, Kamal Nath, the then Commerce Minister, allowed import of waste which could be used as recyclable material. That was the first nail in the coffin, Gopal Krishna said.

After this, India also did not ratify the Ban Amendment' to the Basel Convention, which could have stopped the import of hazardous waste. And thus India gradually became a leading dumping ground. The last damage was done at the Bali Conference on the Basel Convention when Minister of State for Environment Namo Narain Meena said that we saw hazardous waste as recyclable material, Gopal Krishna said.

However, in the light of increasing accidents, the Supreme Court in its order of October 14, 2003, said that the hazardous waste crisis was the result of the government's failure to implement any of the previous judgments and rules.

That implied dereliction of duty and the Supreme Court judgment came in the context of the seminal M.G.K. Menon Committee report, three volumes of text that details the hazards from waste. In addition, the government has started to engage with what Gopal Krishna calls linguistic corruption.

In 2003, the government brought out a draft which would bring a small, yet important, change in the Hazardous Waste rules. It proposed that the word waste should be changed to materials. The decision was stalled following protests from environmental groups. But there were many clauses in the rules which were modified to increase imports. The Commerce Ministry justified the decision by saying that they were getting cheap metal, which could be recycled and would give us profits. What went unnoticed was its environmental impact, Gopal Krishna said.

In March, the MoEF proposed some more amendments to the Hazardous Waste rules. They have been accepted, and thus metal scrap and paper have ceased to be seen as hazardous waste. The rules also permit the import of elements such as cobalt and thorium as waste. Radioactive isotopes such as Co-60 are made from these.

According to a report by Toxics Link, Half Life: Radioactive waste in India, the AERB in November 2008 recommended to the Engineering Export Promotion Council that radiation checks be made mandatory. This has not begun yet. In the light of the Mayapuri accident, one is forced to acknowledge that it is almost impossible to monitor the varied scrap market in the country.

The Commerce Ministry claims that the recycling and waste industry gives not only cheap raw materials but also livelihood to many people. However, Gopal Krishna reverses the theory. He says that life cannot be separated from livelihood.

In the name of giving livelihood, the industries are pushing people into the worst of occupational hazards and abysmal working conditions. While we need to criticise this, we must also not fall into the trap of the new form of environmentalism', the principles of which are dictated by the U.S. and thrust upon the developing world, he adds.

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