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Environment ministry plays ostrich. Meanwhile, hazardous wastes are being
dumped on Indian shores.

by Madhumita Dutta
May 20, 2005 -- On April 23, the Danish ferry 'Riky' illegally arrived at the world's largest shipbreaking yard in Alang, Gujarat. The ship containing hazardous material such as asbestos in its structure, was allowed to beach by the authorities in violation of the Basel Convention and Indian law prohibiting the import of hazardous wastes. A 2003 Supreme Court order mandates the decontamination of ships prior to import into India.
The ship was sold to a post box company in St Vincent and later managed by Mumbai-based Jupiter Ship Management Company, gave Danish authorities the slip after being asked to decontaminate it in Denmark. The same company had illegally imported another ship to Alang last year. Intriguingly, the Danish environment minister, Connie Hedegaard, wrote to the Environment Minister A. Raja about this breach. She stated: "I believe our interests are joint, and I call on you to cooperate in this case by denying the ship to be dismantled in India, and refer the ship to be returned to Denmark in order to be stripped of the hazardous waste." Raja refused to do so on two specious grounds. One, that a ship sailing under its own power is not waste. The second argument was based on the discredited belief that India has the capacity to ensure the environmentally sound disposal of the said ship.
A recent decision taken at a Basel Convention conference clarifies that even ships under their own power can be considered wastes if the purpose of the voyage is disposal and ships-for-scrap containing hazardous substances are treated as hazardous wastes. The environment ministry has attempted to unilaterally reverse the Basel Convention by foisting its own definitions of waste. It has, consequently, spurned Danish cooperation to ensure that Danish wastes are not dumped on India. Raja's second argument sets us back a decade in terms of preventing India from becoming a dumping ground. In May '97, the apex court set aside arguments of environmentally sound management and banned the import of hazardous wastes. In any event, the Alang yards are a far cry from an environmentally sound system.
The ministry has committed yet another grave violation. The apex court had noted that "before a ship arrives at a port, it should have proper consent from the concerned authority" and that India should participate in the Basel Convention's Technical Working Group with a clear mandate for decontaminating ships prior to exports to India for breaking. Despite having been alerted the ministry neither sought information regarding the hazardous substances on board nor issued authorisation to the importer or consent to the shipowner.
India's current position not only shows its disregard for Basel but also for its own legal system. Now that the floodgates have been thrown open by Raja, we shouldn't be surprised if unscrupulous hazardous waste marketeers target India as the destination of choice for their deadly cargo.
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Select images courtesy of Chris Jordan