Stop India from becoming a scrapyard

Updated: Oct 18 2004, 05:43am hrs
The issue of scrap metal imports into India literally blew up with a bang a fortnight ago. Unfortunately it claimed several lives as well. Though this crisis has led to media attention as such consignments (unexploded shells with scrap) continue to be discovered all over the country, the problem has been a chronic one. For example, over the past decade environment groups have been exposing the import of hazardous waste such as lead scrap, zinc ash and electronic waste.

The modus operandi followed is similar. Shipments of scrap are consolidated in places like Dubai and UAE, shipping addresses changed from the original, which could be in Europe, the US or now probably in Iraq, and re-labelled into safe categories such as mixed metal scrap.

The true nature of the scrap is concealed. For example, it is common for electronic waste consignments being so relabelled since e-waste needs special central government permission.

Screening at the ports too is non-existent. Of the 18 odd ports/container uploading areas in India, only Mumbai has scanning equipment. Less than 2% of the containers are scanned, and it is well known that Indian importers prefer shredded scrap since it is significantly cheaper to procure. The over 3.675 million metric tonnes of scrap imported is worth over $ 730 million and comes in over 5,000 containers. At the inland container depot in Delhi alone, over 300 scrap containers arrive daily. Also, as has been observed in the case of hazardous waste imports, customs officers are geared towards revenue generation and not for screening and stopping imports, unless these are sensitive items like drugs or wildlife articles.

Such large imports of scrap take place in India as Indian buyers outbid others. Lower processing costs, often owing to exploitative labour and environmental standards, enable higher margins and higher bids. For example, Alang, the worlds largest ship-breaking yard which supplies over 2 million tonnes of scrap steel to meet about 20% of Indias requirement, has been in the international spotlight owing to the despicable working conditions there.

Action at multiple levels is needed to rectify the situation. Firstly, there needs to be strict emphasis on following proper classification. Ratifying international treaties such as the Basel Ban to stop the trans-boundary movement of hazardous wastes, and the Rotterdam Convention, which calls for prior informed consent procedures to be followed, will be a start. Secondly, customs ports need to be properly equipped with scanners and officers trained to look out for and identify such consignments. Thirdly, known offenders must be blacklisted, and their international connections tracked. And finally, units which buy and receive such scrap should obtain authorisation especially to ensure they follow proper procedures and safety standards. All this is only possible, however, if we have the political will to stop India from becoming the worlds scrapyard!

The writer is director, Toxics Link, an NGO working on recycling and waste imports