New Delhi: The 190 containers of waste oil that were illegally imported into India have been lying at the Jawaharlal Nehru port near Mumbai for the last 10 years. Time and weather have taken their toll on them. The containers have ballooned, leaked oil and, in some cases, even exploded.

Waste business: A truck carries scrap metal at Mandi Gobindgarh, a steel hub in Punjab.Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The situation reflects the poor state of India’s management of such material, a saga that has dragged on since 1989 when the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules were first notified.

The latest episode occurred on 30 March, when the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) unexpectedly amended the Hazardous Wastes Rules, a move that might undo 13 years of orders, directions and guidance by the courts.

The 1989 rules went largely ignored till 1997 when the Supreme Court came into the picture after a petition filed by activist group Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy.

The court created a high power committee (HPC) chaired by M.G.K. Menon on issues relating to hazardous wastes and recommend changes. The report led to an order in 2003 which, while requiring other ministries to be involved, put the onus of implementing the rules on MoEF.

Also Read Previous stories in the series on waste management

It also added 29 items, including used furnace oil (under the garb of which importers were bringing waste oil into the country), to the existing list of 76 banned items.

SCMC, formed by the apex court to monitor and ensure the implementation of this very order, was to file quarterly reports.

In the three years of its existence, said Claude Alvares, who was on the panel, Rs2,500 crore were spent. “There had come a stage when, due to our monitoring, plastic and non-ferrous metallic wastes coming into the country had been reduced to a trickle," he said. Parikh echoes the sentiment.

But in 2006, the chairman of SCMC resigned. Alvares holds MoEF responsible. “They wanted to close down SCMC," he said. “At a meeting for which I and D.B. Boralkar, chairman of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, were absent, they decided to disband it."

Scandalous and open

A few months after the panel ceased to exist, Alvares and Boralkar gave a report on the deficiencies in the implementation of the Hazardous Wastes Rules. They found that banned wastes continued to be imported.

“Though the almost scandalous and open import of vast quantities of lead acid batteries, PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contaminated waste oil and other materials being dumped in this country under the rubric of trade imports have come to a halt, imports of banned hazardous wastes continue," the report said.

“The simple reason is that the authorities were not really implementing the waste rules. Then SCMC got derailed, and the ministry (of environment and forests) said that we will monitor ourselves. Now the situation is back to the same," Parikh said.

With the disbanding of the committee, the system that was being set up in the years since the HPC was formed started coming apart. Monitoring of imports and recyclers became lax.

Meanwhile, the apex court’s attention was being drawn to other issues. “Justice Y.K. Sabharwal, who had taken a keen interest in the issue, retired, and attention shifted to regulating ship-breaking activities," Parikh said. (In a 2007 judgement on French warship Clemenceau, the apex court laid down additional rules governing ship-breaking.)

Cases of contamination and explosions from imported waste continued, as did the half-hearted enquiries.

Last month’s amendments may make it tougher to control the flow of hazardous wastes into India, experts say. “Traders" have now been allowed to import certain kinds of hazardous waste. Previously, this had been restricted to “recyclers", who were subject to periodic checks.

A massacre

The new rules stipulate that such traders register with the local state pollution control boards or pollution committees on a one-time basis and they will be deemed approved if no objections are raised within 30 days. Such traders will be allowed to import cobalt scrap, among other kinds of metal scrap. Meanwhile, the Delhi government is yet to find the origin of radioactive cobalt contamination, which affected scrap dealers and workers at a scrap yard recently.

“The new amendment is a massacre," said Gopal Krishna, coordinator, Indian Platform on Shipbreaking, an activist group dealing with waste imports. He said the new rules gave status to hazardous waste traders as recyclers, which basically will mean even fewer controls.

The most significant checks on what enters India’s borders are at the ports. These, as Mint reported on 23 April, are woefully inadequate.

SCMC, during its tenure, had pushed for the training of customs officials by the Central Pollution Control Board. CPCB officials say such directions have to come from the Central ministry.

“CPCB’s role is zero here. On top is the Central government, then is CPCB, then state government and then state pollution boards. The Centre will take care of training and awareness issues," said S.P. Gautam, chairman, CPCB.

Token monitoring

Gautam said that domestically the main reason for contamination was a mismatch between hazardous waste and treatment capacity. “We send a monitoring team when we receive a serious report. Even from state boards, there is token monitoring, may be 122 samples in a year from the country are tested."

Now, with the new norms, the few checks that were carried out after the initial scrutiny at the port of entry have been done away with. “Traders will bring in just about everything," said Alvares, “and there will be no way to determine where this material goes and what is done with it."

The ministry said in its defence that traders are only permitted to bring in relatively harmless material.

Rajiv Gauba, joint secretary at MoEF, said, “Traders are only allowed in categories that are considered non-hazardous such as metal scrap and paper." In the past, however, shipments of these have been found contaminated with heavy metals and unexploded ordnance. He also said that though the ministry has regular interactions with the ports, it is the responsibility of the states to monitor what the traders are bringing in. He declined to comment on the SCMC issue.

Meanwhile, the apex court is yet to look at the report filed by SCMC over three years ago. The case has been adjourned many times. Union and state government agencies still trade accusations and pass the buck. And the oil from those containers continues to leak.

This is the last in a three-part series on waste management in India.