By now, most scrap dealers in west Delhi have resumed routine business, even as investigating agencies and the government deliberate the future course of action. Such is the half-life of a public health disaster in this country, even though Cobalt-60, the radioactive contaminant in this case, takes 5.27 years to shed half its radioactivity.
Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit has said her government is worried, acknowledging that an ordinary inquiry will not be adequate as this issue involves “a lot of technicalities”. She is right. A long-term solution, not only for the National Capital Region, but for the whole nation, lies in installing checks at the entry points, which will also mitigate the need for detection and radioactive material handling in the country’s nooks and crannies.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Last week, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board suggested that scrap imported into the country be checked at the port of entry for radioactive sources. The board had earlier proposed a multi-layered radiation check system. But clearly that system hasn’t been effectively implemented. It is also unknown how many ports in the country have operational radiation counters, a device that costs just a few thousand rupees.
Moreover, it must be remembered that radioactive substances can enter public space through theft or pilferage and can facilitate making of dirty bombs or other radiological weapons. And as Dikshit admitted, the present disaster management apparatus isn’t adequate to deal with the situation.
In fact, the Disaster Management Act, 2005, outlines the provisions for dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. And if a December 2008 World at Risk report is to be believed, the world is likely to experience a nuclear or biological weapons attack by 2013.
The National Disaster Management Authority has said in the past that it needs more cooperation and commitment from state governments, society and the private sector alike.
Don’t get this wrong—for once, it’s not about a lack of funds. At least Rs10,000 crore is allocated in the 11th Plan for medical preparedness alone. But in a country where 70% of medical care is provided by the private sector, maybe a legal instrument that binds healthcare providers to public safety could prove effective.
The sources of such threats are diffused; even electronic waste, which is projected to jump in volume by 500% by 2020 from 2007 levels according to a recent United Nations report, can be the source of a radiation leak.
Imagine if the present radiation leak had occurred in a small town, not in Delhi—a horrific, large-scale public health mishap was inevitable.
Sustained public awareness campaign and a stringent regulatory environment are our best armour.
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