In December 2001, the Supreme Court had directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to conduct an enquiry and take appropriate action on the disappearance of hazardous wastes from various Ports, Internal Container Depots (ICD) and Container Freight Stations (CFS). The interim ruling was issued on a writ petition brought by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy vs the Union of India and others. The background to this ruling was the original Supreme Court ruling of May 1997 banning import of hazardous wastes followed by subsequent orders in Feb 1998 disallowing auction of hazardous waste stocks in the country ports and container depots.

In response to the December 2001 ruling, the MoEF setup an Inquiry Committee on Hazardous Wastes. The terms of reference of this committee were a) to visit ports, ICDs and CFs and verify the inventory of hazardous wastes (waste oil, lead acid batteries, and other non-ferrous metal wastes) seized under the Court's orders of 1998 and b) to identify shortages if any with reference to the quantities that had been seized and the reasons therefor. A. C. Wadhawan, head of the committee, and other members visited five ports, two ICDs, and one CFS. They visited ICD Tughlaqabad, Kandla Port, Mumbai Port, Nhava Sheva Port, Kolkata Port, Chennai Port, ICD at Bangalore and CFS at Ludhiana. The inventory of the seized hazardous wastes viz were verified and the shortages identified by the committee.

Several cases of due diligence not being applied have surfaced due to the inquiry. Lack of coordination between the concerned government agencies is evident from the committee's findings to the effect that the authorities have cleared some kinds of hazardous waste as per the Exim Policy, although these items mentioned in the Exim policy are restricted under the Hazardous Wastes Rules, 1989. The manner in which the port authorities notified the Police about missing zinc-ash drums imported during 1996-97 comes up as a clear case of cover up by the Chennai Customs, between 1996-97 and 2001-02.

The Chennai and Kandla Port authorities used guidelines of the Ministry of Finance on fast-track clearance and disposal of unclaimed cargo for disposal of hazardous waste.
Furthermore, fast-track clearances for special public auctions to dispose of unclaimed cargo including hazardous waste stocks by the Kandla Port Trust/Chennai Port Trust authorities is another example of flouting well-laid out procedures regarding hazardous wastes. The Chennai and Kandla Port authorities used Oct 1997 guidelines of the Ministry of Finance favouring fast-track clearance and dispoal of unclaimed cargo. Their actions have been direct contravention of existing rules and according to a Central Pollution Control Board official this should be considered as a case of contempt of court. The port authorities however plead that they merely followed the circular issue by the Ministry of Finance to reduce congestion in ports.

While importers without valid permissions for seized consignments have also been found against, the committee prefers that actions against the importers have to be taken as per Customs Act 1962. This writer and other environmental groups such as Toxics Link feel that the action against the importers should be taken according to the Hazardous Waste Rules. Although the list of erring importers has already been furnished by the Ports/ICDs/CFSs to the Ministry of Environment and Forest and to the Supreme Court, it has not been made public.

The committee has also pointed out that the re-export of the material to the original exporters would in no way be feasible at present. "But there is a provision of re-export to the exporter under the Basel Convention and this should be considered as a case of hazardous waste dumping. There should be negotiations on the part of the Ministry of Environment and Forests to re-export the hazardous waste - this cannot be ignored," says Ravi Agarwal of the Basel Action Network.

"The callousness towards the management of earlier records of hazardous waste imports is outrageously criminal and this kind of record keeping needs to be inquired in to thoroughly and the truth should be made public. The Inland container depots of Tughlaqabad, Mumbai and Kandla Port Trust have mentioned that they are not able to locate records due to the manual nature of record keeping! There have been errors in the earlier figures reported by some port authorities. Likewise, the figures given by Kolkata and Chennai Port Trusts have also been revised," says Ravi Agarwal.

The committee cites the position of the port authorities on ignorance of a clear-cut idea as to what constitutes hazardous waste. This does not hold water. Import of such materials as recyclables is regulated as per the Exim policy, though the Exim policy in different financial years has undergone significant changes with inputs from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Battery scrap/battery plates were freely importable during 1996-97, but were made restricted item in 1997-98 in the Exim policy. "The explanation given by the authorities is questionable since this was done despite Delhi High Court's order dated 2 April, 1995 where these items were banned from import. The Ministry of Environment & Forest was aware of the order", says Ravi Agarwal.

The release of large consignments of waste oil, (2,334 containers containing 41,425 MT of waste oil and 16,748 drums) to various importers by the Container Freight Station (CFS) at Ludhiana is alarming since hazardous waste containing PCBs (a known carcinogen), heavy metals, sulphur, etc have been released posing a serious threat to the environment and health. Customs authorities have reported that this has been done in accordance with orders from the Haryana and Punjab High Court under writ petitions filed by the importers.

While the committee's report itself throws up abundant information about the status of waste stocks, culpable importers, as well as the regulatory environment in the country, an intriguing aspect of the committee's report is its view of the Basel Convention. The committee feels that the Convention's ban on hazardous waste exports include for operational flexibilities, and this in turn makes it necessary of individual countries to formulate their own allow or disallow import of particular wastes. "But the recommendations suggested by the committee are not in pursuant to the laws and rules dealing with hazardous waste in India", says Ravi Agarwal.

(To be concluded)