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The Burden of Waste: India’s Environmental Shame

The flip side of consumption

“Citizens are so disassociated with the issue of waste that we have no guilt in generating more waste, have no desire to minimize it and feel no moral or legal obligation to manage it”

The average Indian has become near-inured to the garbage dumps on the side of the road, and the nervous asthmatic wheezing that results from breathing in badly polluted air.

As per the 2014 Environmental Performance Index, India ranked 155th out of 178 countries in its ability to manage its environment, scoring especially poorly in Air Quality (ranked 177th) and the Health Impacts of the Environment (124th).

What is even more worrying is that instead of taking this and several other reports as a call to action,we instead choose to compare our  air quality with that of China (which, incidentally, is improving at a far greater rate than that of Delhi) in some sort of a bizarre game of one-upmanship, assuming that ignoring the problem will lead to it eventually disappearing.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case worldwide or in India, and the time has come to plan what we can do to improve our environment instead of disputing over the banalities or assigning blame.

My Big Red Bag was fortunate enough to speak with environmentalist Anu Agarwal- a consultant with Toxics Link*- about some of the largest environmental issues facing India, and learnt so much from her experience and measured responses.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Anu. And we wish you and the team at Toxics Link much success!

In your opinion, what is the biggest impediment to effective waste management and toxins disposal in India?

The biggest impediment to effective waste management is the low priority attached to it. There is little political will or enough community awareness on these issues, though this is slowly changing with work like ours. The onus of waste management should lie with the generator and it should be managed nearest to the source of generation, however even simple principles are not understood enough.  Citizens  are so disassociated with the issue of waste that we have no guilt in generating more waste, have no desire to minimize it and feel no moral or legal obligation (even though there are now many new laws) to manage it. At the administrative level, slack enforcement, along with an inadequate infrastructure  are  big challenges.

As far as toxins are concerned the key issue again is insufficient awareness. Aesthetic and cosmetic needs have added to the use of more chemicals in everyday life. Finally, good research in these areas, and their impact on the environment and health is lacking.

What are some of the every day toxins that people are discarding/using without realising about their impact on the environment?

Did you know that a new born’s umblical cord blood contains almost 200 chemicals and everyone alive today carries within her or his body at least 700 contaminants? Chemicals have invaded our lives and this proliferation has compounded with increase in technology. Municipal solid waste has a lot of hazardous components like pesticides cans/ bottles, mosquito repellants, batteries, discarded medicines, broken CFLs/ thermometers (which have mercury), floor cleaners and disinfectant containers , and so on. Use of leaded paints at home, PVC toys, use of plastics in microwaves all add to the levels of toxins around us. Used syringes and bandages (from home care) are unattended infectious waste. Moreover, the advertisers’ claim that cleaning our homes is really difficult without the help of modern day cleaners and disinfectants has led to unprecedented growth in the sale of these products. The government has to be really careful before allowing newer products in the market, be they cosmetics with deadly heavy metals/ banned chemicals or not so useful toiletries.

All these chemicals and products enter our food chain and lead to increased cancer rates and endocrine disruption. India will continue to see an increase in hormonal diseases if chemicals in products and processes are not acknowledged soon. And the intelligentsia has to learn to question the usefulness and the Environment Quotient (EQ) of each product they buy.

The GoI instituted the Bio medical Rules in 1998. In your experience, how strictly is it being followed, or is medical waste still a big issue?

Its been nearly 16 years since the Bio-medical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules were notified. The Indian Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on waste management in the country (2008) complimented BMW as the best managed law. While this is true, unfortunately it is the ‘best’ amongst some very poorly implemented laws. The Central Pollution Control Board’s annual reports have consistently shown improved compliance of BMW rules in India, at the rate of 10%, since 2006. Officially India is now in 90% compliance of BMW laws. But on the ground there are still several States which do not have a proper disposal mechanisms for BMW in place. Many hospitals are still dumping their wastes in the open or  in nearest drains and water bodies. Most of the syringes used in the country do not reach treatment sites since they are siphoned off to be washed and sold as new. These used syringes have the potential to transmit deadly diseases like HBV, HCV, HIV etc. India is at risk of a silent hepatitis epidemic that potentially could be much more severe than HIV. With a sero- prevalence of HBV at 38 in 1000 population (National Aids Control Organistion – NACO 1994), Bio-medical waste management needs to be taken really seriously before its too late.

What is the impact of inefficient disposal of biomedical waste and what can be done to address this?

Mismanaged BMW can lead to spread of lethal diseases like HBV, HCV, HIV, TB, meningitis etc. Vaccine waste if not disposed off properly can also lead to out break of the disease that the vaccine was supposed to prevent. Cancer drugs can lead to cancers in general population if not addressed, poor antibiotic disposal policy can lead to antibiotic resistance in the population.  In addition to these, environment health issues involved with improper disposal are many. Though India was the first country in the world to ban the incineration of chlorinated plastics (which causes the formation and release of carcinogenic gases and mutagens), the hospitals still continue to mix their waste and burn off their plastics.      

Waste Management

How does India compare with other nations in environmental awareness and toxins management

Traditionally and culturally we were world leaders in waste management and environment issues. Our culture taught us to worship our rivers, air, land, even flora and fauna around us. My father has followed this Indian culture and our home was and always has zero/ negligible waste. All the organic/ kitchen wet waste goes to cattle and recyclables are segregated and given to the rag picker in an unsoiled form. I am surprised when people tell me that Europeans and Americans are extremely good at waste management, they segregate at source. Why, because they are trying to learn what we seem to have known and now forgotten. But I think it’s now time that we position ourselves correctly in all aspects, as India cannot become a Superpower (as envisioned by our leaders) until Mother Nature gets its due.

Policy makers should realize that any economic plan with fail if the environmental health of people deteriorates because of polluted water, air and food.

This year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. As a Government and a country we have failed the survivors of the incident. What can be done to ensure that no such tragedy is repeated ever again?

Prevention is better than cure. Chemicals work at very low levels and most of this toxicity cannot even be diagnosed by the best medical practitioners. With each product and process there are unintentional releases. For eg. Mercury is an unintentional by- product of coal burning/ smelting industry. We shouldn’t be burning waste as suggested by many, as the burning of waste releases thousands of PIC (product of incomplete combustion) which the scientific community has not been able to study till date. Thus each industrial process needs to go through thorough legitimate and honest EIA (Environment Impact Assessment). The interest of India and Indians should be carefully guarded by the guardians of the land. Foremost we will have to start questioning and analyzing our needs and demands and shun what is not needed and also take onus of the environment near us. Political commitment nevertheless will be the crowning glory for OUR ENVIRONMENT.

Thanks Anu. On the one hand, a discussion about the environment leaves you in despair but on the other hand it is also heartening to know that there ARE solutions. Since the beginning of evolution this is the first time that the species in charge of the environment is sentient and capable of calculated decision making. And while that may be precisely what got us into this mess, it is also the reason that we can get out of this environmental catastrophe. As Anu rightly pointed out, let’s begin by “segregating at source” and managing our own waste, and consumption of toxins. That itself may help make the air we breathe safer and cleaner.

*About Toxics Link: Toxics Link is an environmental NGO-founded by leading environmentalist Ravi Agarwal- dedicated to bringing toxics related information into the public domain, both relating to struggles and problems at the grassroots as well as global information to the local level. It also engages in on-the-ground work, especially in areas of municipal, hazardous and medical waste management, chemicals and their health impacts, food safety, among others.Working in networks, utilising community outreach and education, policy analysis, research, training and program development, Toxics Links works at the state and central levels to help create solutions, which are driven by the needs of people. In addition, it is also actively  involved in a wider range of environmental issues in Delhi such as cleaning the Yamuna River.

My Big Red Bag brings original content inspired by life’s joys and passions. Check out other articles from our Environment Issue, and stay tuned to our latest content by following us on Twitter and FB. See you on the other side!

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