New Delhi: The Supreme Court has restrained the customs department from taking any action against ITC Ltd, which has been held responsible for importing around 1,000 tonnes of “hazardous municipal waste”.
Holding ITC responsible for dumping the waste, the Madras High Court had asked the company to send the material back to the US, the country of origin.
The Madurai Bench of the High Court had also directed the customs authorities to initiate action against the officers of ITC (paperboard and specialty paper division) responsible for the garbage coming from the US, rotting in 35 cargo containers at Tuticorin port for more than three years.
A bench headed by Justice S H Kapadia, however, restrained the customs authorities from taking action against ITC as the latter’s review petition is pending before the High Court.
“Since a review petition is pending before the High Court, stand over for six weeks,” the court said, adding the department should not initiate any action against ITC till the review plea is heard.
Stating that the company cannot be treated as the owner or the importer of the cargo, ITC senior counsel Harish Salve said that the 35 containers were part of a consignment of 2,000 metric tonnes of ‘paper waste’ imported by it in September 2005 from Evergreen Specialties Inc, a private company in New Jersey, for making paperboard.
Even Evergreen had accepted the rejection of import and that a consignment meant for some other country had been wrongly shipped to India, ITC stated.
The raw material was imported as an alternative to cutting trees for making paperboard.
According to the petitioner (ITC), it regularly imports waste paper from reputed exporters all over the world and in its 2005 order it had stipulated that the waste paper consignment should not have more than 10 per cent non-fibre material like plastic and metal.
The consignment reached Tuticorin in September 2005 and it was not in accordance with the specifications of the order, the petition filed through Rajan Narain said.
On arrival, the customs department had permitted ITC to clear 960 containers with a capacity of approximately 25 tonnes each, but had refused clearance for the rest (40) as they contained contaminated municipal waste.
According to ITC, customs officials, on inspection, found that the consignment contained contaminated infectious waste.
The authorities had directed the consignment to be sent back as it could not be unloaded because it was in violation of the Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989.
Malta-based company Norasia Container Lines Ltd was engaged in November 2005 to transport the consignment to JDH International LLC, a buyer in the United Arab Emirates.
But Ajman port officials in the UAE permitted unloading only five containers and ordered that the remaining 35 be taken back to Tuticorin without informing Evergreen.
Norasia had moved the High Court seeking a direction to the customs to dispose of the cargo as abandoned and return the empty containers. Besides, it had also filed a case against ITC, Evergreen, Customs, Port authorities, etc for losses incurred by it in shipping the cargo between Tuticorin and the UAE and sought damages of Rs2,28,88,852.
On the single judge’s order, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had recommended re-export of the cargo back to New Jersey “in view of the threat it may pose to the environment and the people of India, if such illegal consignments are handled or disposed of in the country”.
Aggrieved by the CPCB’s order, ITC had appealed before the division bench stating that the consignment was diverted to the UAE as instructed by the New Jersey-based firm.