The three stinking containers were promptly sent back to Barcelona by alert Customs officials. However, for the last eight months, 72.59 metric tonnes of trash ranging from optical fibre waste to used oil cans and rubber hoses from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia have been lying at the Tuticorin dock, reeking.
Last year alone, nine containers of hazardous waste imported from Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Barcelona by three different companies in Tamil Nadu were caught at the port in a clear pointer to rural India becoming a waste bin for the developed world.
This year, too, 20 containers of hazardous waste from Greece and Reunion, a French colony, imported by a paper factory in southern Tamil Nadu, were “resent” from the Tuticorin port. Used syringes, juice cartons and blood-stained napkins collected by the municipal councils in suburban London were found in a pile of rubbish dumped in a well in a farm at Kemmarampalayam in Coimbatore in August 2008.
But why are the developed nations dumping their garbage on Indian soil? Simply because shipping municipal waste to India is about four times cheaper than recycling it in their own land. While it costs Rs 12,000 to recycle a tonne of rubbish after segregation in Britain, shipping the rubbish to India costs just about Rs 2,800.
Cement factories in Tamil Nadu also import toxic garbage on the pretext of using it as fuel. These consignments are booked innocuously as ‘mixed waste paper, plastic scrap or latex’ to hoodwink customs.
“As most of these consignments smell foul, we check it. And we send the samples to the Pollution Control Board to ascertain if it is hazardous or not. And then we take the necessary steps, sometimes sending them back to the countries they came from,” says Tuticorin port’s additional customs commissioner S Chandra Mohan. Importers of municipal waste, especially paper and cement factories, prefer the Tuticorin route as it is a minor port and offers better chances of easy passage.
None of the Indian ports have scanners to detect the actual contents of the consignments. Environment protection laws in India are not stringent enough to curb imports of hazardous waste, say environmental activists. “When toxic consignments are caught, the importing companies manage to get relief from the court,” says a customs official.
Four containers of smelly waste are still docked at the port. More importantly, the State Pollution Control Board’s environmental engineers, who are responsible for monitoring the dumping of hazardous waste, fail to act swiftly in several cases. “They take a long time even to give the laboratory test reports and it leads to unnecessary delays in resending the waste,’’ a customs official says.
After a British TV channel exposed how toxic waste from municipal councils in the UK were being dumped in farms in western Tamil Nadu, environmental engineers were asked to keep a close watch on the industrial units that imported the trash. Vigilance and anticorruption officials raided the offices of the Pollution Control Board’s environment engineers. While one of the engineers was caught with Rs 7 lakh in unaccounted cash, in another district pollution control office, wads of notes were, ironically, found dumped in the dustbin.
Used surgical gloves, sanitary napkins, diapers, medical waste, syringes, optic fibre cables make up the ‘rubbish’ consignments at Tuticorin port
40 containers of ‘mixed wastepaper’ imported by ITC from the US were confiscated after they were found to contain municipal waste of an eco-toxic nature
Nine containers of toxic waste from Malaysia, Barcelona and Jeddah imported by Excel Trading Corporation, Sree Jayajothi Cement and Harbour Petro Chem, seized
20 containers of trash from French colony Reunion and Greece imported by Sripathi Paper and Boards confiscated