Recycled rows

WHETHER reshuffling of the Union Cabinet on the eve of the crucial Sept 18-22 conference in Geneva on transboundary movement of toxic wastes had any effect on the event's outcome is more a matter of conjecture. But it definitely reflects a recurring malaise in the Indian government's attitude, where political gameplans gain the upperhand over vital environmental issues.

The Indian delegation at the 3rd Conference of Parties on the Basel Convention, however, held fast the Indian stand-point, deviating from its earlier decision for a blanket ban, seeking 'selective' trade.

In addition to this change of heart, clarification sought on the defination of hazardous wastes, both which were not restricted to India alone, threatened the solidarity among the signatories of the Convention. Trade of hazardous wastes had been declared illegal last year after over 100 countries had ratified the Convention.

"We are not against trade in recyclables," said K K Bakshi, member of the Indian delegation, speaking to Down To Earth, from Geneva on the last day of the convention. "At the same time, we are against the trade of hazardous wastes, which would be exported for the purpose of dumping," he stated.

He confirmed that there was a 'kind of split' among signatories, with some East European countries joining the 'dissidents'.

V R Subramaniam of India Lead and Zinc Information Centre, Delhi, states that developing countries like India, were heavily dependant on recyclable wastes for their requirement of non-ferrous metals. "Approximately 40 per cent of some of these metals used in the country are obtained from secondary sources, i.e recyclable wastes," he says.

He adds that a ban on the trade would neccessitate the country's needs for metals like lead, zinc, cadmium, and copper, to be met from primary sources. "This would have its own environment fallout, as it would involve mining. Besides, limited reserves demand careful exploitation," states Subramaniam.

However, this claim is questionable as uncharted mineral wealth on the sea bed is yet to be tapped by the India's economic planners.

"The issue of deciding to ban or not to ban trade in hazardous wastes is a complex one," states Ravi Sharma of the Centre for Science and Environment (cse). "If there is a total ban, metal scraps coming in for recycling may go underground, knowing our government's weak institutional mechanisms in any form of prevention. However, any policy to throw open the gates may also be dangerous. A middle-way would have to be found to realistically eliminate the negative effects of trade in hazardous substances."

He adds that controlled trade would ensure that those concerned about environmental fallouts would raise queries about similar wastes generated by Indian industry -- an issue overlooked. Also, countries like India, who have technologies to use these scraps profitably, stood to loose if a ban was imposed, he adds.

While those in favour of the trade dismiss environmental issues by stating that government mechanisms like the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) and the state pcbs were empowered to see that industry did not overstep the prescribed limits of emissions and pollutants, others like Dilip Biswas, chairman, cpcb, favour technology and procedural changes.

"To regulate indiscriminate imports, a procedure would be required to permit restrictive and selected movement. Change in technology, like the use of lead-free batteries, and reprocessing at authorised units having requisite facilities for pollution control, would assist in the cause," he states.

Considering the fact that waste exports from oecd (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries to importing nations rose from us $5.7 billion in 1980, to us $33.3 billions in 1993, the numbers of jobs in these countries at stake could easily be estimated. From Taiwan to India to China to Malaysia, the number of anxious business houses and employees must be sufficient for their representatives at Geneva to try and seek clarifications in this context.

The Indian media was in a tizzy over the issue, after Greenpeace, the international environment group, disclosed the harmful effects of the trade. Showing a 15-minute documentary about India's Bharat Zinc Ltd (bzl) unit that processed used batteries imported from Germany and the Netherlands, they whipped up a frenzy that was enough for environmentalists to take the bzl to court.

"They showed the entire issue in a completely one-sided manner. To make publicised statement, they should have done their homework thoroughly and seen the issue in its correct perspective," states a critic of this high profile group.

In fact, Greenpeace had refused to release a statement of the cse at the same gathering, which showed the issue in perspective, with Greenpeace activists claiming superior knowledge on the issue.

The pro-ban lobby cite the example of Africa and South America, as perfect examples of those upholding the ban. The African nations could be disqualified as they do not have the technology to recycle wastes.

Reports indicate that in South-America, drug cartels have found bootlegging hazardous waste a profitable business, as have their recycling industry.

India with its abysmally low record of preventing any form of contrabrand, could well be another sitting target once and if, the ban is effective.