India has become a reprocessing hub for waste from around the world. But the regulation is lax, leading to concerns radioactive material may be in the products exported back to the world.
Greenpeace radiation expert Jan Vande Putte reviews the radiation levels in Mayapuri scrap market. (Photography: Maruti Modi / Greenpeace).
ON APRIL 7, 2010, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of India (AERB) received a fax from one of Delhi’s top hospitals, the Indraprastha Apollo hospital, that stated that a scrap metal dealer had been admitted to the hospital and was showing symptoms of radiation exposure.
Deepak Jain, a 27-year-old had been rushed to the hospital after a high fever hadn’t subsided for seven days and the skin on his hand started peeling off. He had been in his shop in the West Delhi industrial area of Mayapuri when the incident happened. Mayapuri is home to thousands of workers in the scrap trade and houses shops specialising in various metals. Most of this metal originates overseas and makes its way to Mayapuri through importers who sell it to these shops.
Jain was among the eight people who were affected by radiation poisoning. He, like the others, had been exposed to cobalt-60, which had leaked from an irradiation machine being dismantled in the area. Jain refused the Rs 200,000 (A$ 4,000) compensation offered to him by the government and is instead suing Delhi University, from whose labs the machine originated. The university had bought the gamma irradiation machine in 1970 but it had not been used since the mid-1980s.
The scrap trade
In the last few decades, India has quickly become the world’s dumping ground for all sorts of waste, including hazardous material like old electronic gadgets or ‘e-waste’. A large force of both formal and informal workers is involved in the acquiring, processing, and managing of this waste, yet, experts say the necessary checks and balances are missing.
The point was driven home by the 2010 Delhi incident, which raised several questions about the monitoring of hazardous waste in India: who was doing the monitoring? Were the materials being brought into the country being checked to see if they were hazardous? If there were leaks in the system, who would be held responsible? And most importantly, if hazardous waste is still being allowed into the country, who’s to blame for the impact that it’s having on the environment and the people?
Unfortunately, no one seems to have those answers. Although government bodies do exist to oversee waste management, they are largely regulatory bodies and don’t have any real power. Eventually, the responsibility falls on the already overburdened courts in India, a process that can take years if not decades. Furthermore, there are currently no mechanisms or systems that ensure the smooth monitoring of imported or even domestically generated waste or the steps to be taken in case something goes wrong, as demonstrated by the Mayapuri incident.
“When Mayapuri happened, people were just helter skelter,” says Satish Sinha, the Associate Director at Toxics Link, an environmental non-government organisation that aims to bring information related to toxic substances into the public domain. “Even the disaster management authorities did not actually know what they were supposed to do. The whole drill, the whole system was missing. I think these are gaps that we’ve learned exist and they need to be plugged.”
Yet, despite the tough talk by both the government and the regulatory agencies, this was not the first time that there have been concerns regarding the material that makes its way to Indian shores. In 2004, radioactive materials were found in ammunition that was imported from Iraq as scrap and in 2006, Blue Lady, a ship that came to Alang in Gujarat to be dismantled made headlines due to its high asbestos content.
This radiation then shows up in the finished products made from recovered materials that are exported back to the world. In 2007, radioactive steel originating from India was found in Germany and later that year, French officials reported that buttons for elevators, which had been made from recycled steel from India were emitting radiation.
“Many scrap dealers have bought radiation monitors,” K.S. Parthasarathy, the former Secretary of the AERB wrote in a newspaper editorial following the Mayapuri incident. “Since virtually all instances of steel contamination seem to have been caused by radioactive sources which came along with imported scrap, radiation monitors must be installed urgently at all ports.”
But it is not simply the headline cases that need to be looked at, says Bharati Chaturvedi, the founder and director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group and a regular commentator on environmental issues. “Mayapuri was just incredibly dramatic and it was such high doses of radioactivity,” she explains. “But you could have really low doses and that’s not acceptable either. The other thing is that we don’t know how much radioactive waste is being generated. We have no idea what’s happening to the waste because the nuclear establishment in India, which is the main source of our radioactive waste, has no accountability to public safety and health.”
Whose trash? Whose treasure?
“Waste flows from rich to poor and that’s the nature of that flow,” says Sinha. “I find it slightly amusing to say that processing waste is perhaps an economic activity and it will add to your GDP. I get the sense from the government that they are quite comfortable about this waste coming in.” He says they routinely turn a blind eye to many of the things that are happening in the industry, which could be potential threats not only for the people involved in dealing with this waste, but the ecology and the country as a whole.
Yet, it wasn’t always this way. What has essentially caused this shift is the separation of economic and environmental issues. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (usually known as the Basel Convention) is an international treaty that came into force in 1992 and sought to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations, specifically from developed to developing countries. In 1992, India’s message to the West was in line with the treaty: we do not want your waste.
However, in 1995, at the Geneva Conference, under pressure from developed nations including Australia, India’s then Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, gave in and allowed the import of waste as recyclable material.
From then, there’s been no looking back. Waste is now a serious business in the country, worth billions. In response to a Freedom of Information request made by Ashish Kothari of the environment protection group Kalpavrisksh, it was revealed that the import of stainless steel waste and scrap went up from 100,899,729 kg worth Rs 4.54 billion (A$90 million) in 2003-04 to 336,114,900 kg worth Rs 40 billion (A$800 million) in 2007-08. And there’s still more profit to be had.
What happens in India, however, will have global reverberations, warns Chaturvedi. “India is exporting all kinds of things, in addition to the people who’re being exposed and getting on planes,” she says. “I think the point is how India’s own secrecy is making it pretty much a radioactive menace for the rest of the world.”
Author: Mridu Khullar Relph
Source: ABC News