Over the past two decades, India has emerged as a leading importer of waste products. We now import 100 broad kinds of wastes, ostensibly for re-use and recycling in metal-based and chemical industries. Getting consolidated figures is difficult, primarily due to the scattered database of the Department of Commerce that overlaps between toxic and non-toxic waste. The approximate values are however, indicative enough. As early as 2009, PVC (polyvinyl-chloride) imports rose to 4,65,951 tonnes. Import of metal wastes has increased threefold in the past eight years. Electronic waste (E-waste) in particular has come to acquire a considerable portion of such imports, with India importing 50 lakh tonnes annually. Imported under the pretext of creating ‘wealth from wastes,’ several of these have been found to be harmful.
Most of the waste imported is for the ostensible purpose of recycling. This is primarily done in the informal sector, a euphonious term for poor men, women and children, who lack the necessary knowledge and equipment they need to engage in such hazardous activity. For instance, 90 per cent of recycling activities in e-waste is performed in the unorganised sector. Across various cities, these activities are concentrated in slums or dump-yards, where labourers work in impoverished conditions. They manually dismantle, burn or collect the waste, exposing themselves directly to substances like cadmium, lead oxide or mercury, causing heavy metal poisoning, lung diseases, limb damage and even death.
The extended set of victims constitute the larger civil society. Of the 12 identifiable informal waste recycling units in Chennai, five are located in residential areas, four near schools and other commercial areas and only three in industrial areas. Not only does the dismantling of waste products release toxic chemicals contaminating the water, soil and air, but the remaining waste, after the extraction process, is often left untreated or even burnt, causing cancer, cognitive disorders and respiratory harm.
For a country whose waste generation is rising at a rate of 10-15 per cent annually, importing more of it hardly seems to be viable, when it is unable to dispose of its own.
Witnessing an influx of hazardous waste is an experience not unique to India but reflects the greater North-South divide. As laws regulating hazardous waste disposal grow in developed countries, firms seek cheaper sites for their disposal. Countries in Africa and Asia are often tempted by offers of revenue for accepting waste, even when they lack the technology to safely get rid of them. Waste exporters often make a profit by such trade. In India, there exist a cluster of legislations such as The Public Liability Act, 1991, The National Environmental Tribunal Act, 1995, the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, miscellaneous Central Board of Pollution Control Guidelines and other such directives that address the issue of waste import.
But as experience shows, the lack of law enforcement, loopholes in legislation as well as lack of awareness among the general public are responsible for the growing menace of waste imports.
Serious enforcement concerns raised by various NGOs continue to be unaddressed. For instance, a case study by Toxic Links, an NGO catering to waste issues, revealed that most port officials, in-charge of inspecting the shipments that arrive in Indian ports, are not equipped with the requisite knowledge or tools to identify the goods they carry.
There is a dearth of scanners preventing them from actually scanning the contents of shipments. Since most such imports are illegal, these wastes are shipped from developed countries to developing countries by routing and re-routing them through various locations before they finally reach their destination, disguised as something harmless.
The legislations and rules suffer from glaring loopholes. For instance, as per the ‘Hazardous Waste Rules,’ ‘Special Economic Zones(SEZs)’ are exempted from all its provisions. SEZs are major sites where the dismantling takes place. As per these rules, certain materials can only be imported with permission from state agencies. To get around this, toxic wastes are simply labelled as ‘mixed metal scrap,’ thus evading all examination. Moreover, the new Free Trade Agreements that Japan and EU have sought with India, label such goods not as waste but ‘non-new goods’, in an effort to export these wastes to developing countries, including India. Import-export policy allows the import of second hand computers as well. The disguised nature of such imports makes them difficult to trace.
Furthermore, the worst sufferers of this, the unorganised sector, lack the means and the advocates to call for a change. They are even unwilling to do so because it is by working in this chasm of illegality that they are able to sustain a living. The harmful effects faced by civil society are comparatively gradual and thus not immediately noticeable, which makes this type of environmental crime seem ‘victimless.’
It would be incorrect to say that viable suggestions have not been proposed to amend the situation. Organisations like Toxic Links have continually stressed the need for “Extended Producer’s Liability” and for imposing a complete ban on certain materials.
There have also been demands by civil society to enact separate legislation on e-waste. However, one must also explore the scope of capacity building programmes among all stakeholders of waste import: The Indian experience reveals that the bulk of the problem lies in lack of enforcement and awareness. Awareness campaigns of what waste import entails must also be picked up at the state level.
The social, economic and political characteristics of developing nations often make them vulnerable to environmental crimes. The effectiveness of the new revised rules would thus depend on how well they comprehend the nature, magnitude and impact of the illegal waste trade.
The writers are, respectively, professor of law and student at the Jindal Global University.