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India, a sucker for toxic mercury

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November 11, 2003 11:06 IST

The Sensex stock index has risen by 75 per cent since April this year. The rupee is at a three-year high.

Global investment analyst Goldman Sachs predicts that India is the fastest growing of the four "BRIC" -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- economies expected to make it big in the next 50 years or so. We are "feeling good," say financial planners.

It is not my intention to deflate this bubble. But from what we are learning -- not just about the sheer wretchedness of poverty in vast parts of the country untouched by the Sensex stocks, but also about the sheer toxicity of the wealth that we are creating -- it is time we seriously rethink about progress and "feeling good".

Otherwise, the steps of the tango will change. With each step forward, we will end up taking 10 steps backwards.

Growth will come at extraordinary societal costs of poor health and conflicts. I say this, not because I am against growth, but because I believe it does not have to be so stupid and mindless. We can and must do better.

Why do I say this? Take what we learnt this past fortnight.

The directorate general of commercial intelligence and statistics, based in Kolkata, has released data on the imports of mercury to India.

It shows that we have become theĀ world's largest importers of mercury -- imports have increased from 250 tonnes in the mid-1990s to roughly 550 tonnes last year. Organo-mercury compounds -- used in pesticides and other industries -- have increased a whopping 1,300 per cent over these past seven years.

In this grand economic plan, we are also exporters of mercury-based products -- from pesticides to lamps and thermometers.

Add up all this and you find that India is now processing up to 70 per cent of the world's total annual mercury production. Staggering steps to becoming the world's economic superpower.

But can we really call this progress?

The reason why we are becoming the preferred destination for mercury and its compounds is because the rest of the world, including China, knows that mercury is deadly. Its compound methylmercury is a known neurotoxicant -- it damages the developing brain.

Worse, it is well known that it can pass through the placenta barrier and the blood-brain barrier. It threatens the unborn. It cripples life.

Therefore, they are phasing it out. Deliberately and consciously.

Europe has decided to close down all its chlor-alkali production, using mercury cells, by 2010. Countries are looking for substitutes for all products that use mercury.

As a result, the mining of mercury is down from over 7,000 tonnes in the 1980s to less than 2,000 tonnes in 2000. But the industrialised world has huge stocks of mercury -- Europe alone, on closing down its chlor-alkali production, will have between 13,000 and 18,000 tonnes of mercury -- to dump in the world market.

The problem is that there is no market left.

Except in a sucker-country called India. Therefore, even as the world phases out mercury, we phase it in.

And we do this, not even with the careful planning and regulation of the rich and organised. We phase in mercury with negligence that is criminal.

We currently regulate -- in terms of emissions and waste products -- roughly 0.2 tonnes of mercury or as little as 0.03 per cent of the mercury we imported in 2002-03. We do not even know where we are using mercury.

The only industry that is regulated -- marginally -- is the chlor-alkali sector.

Amazing. Therefore, we are importing more and more of this highly toxic substance, without any internal capacities to inventorise our use, to regulate its waste and policies to minimise and reuse this known toxin.

I called this stupid growth. We don't have to use mercury. The world has already found substitutes for most mercury-based products. We could have easily leapfrogged into better practices.

Further, the "intelligent" world is talking about comparative risk assessment -- introducing only those products which are less toxic than those already in use.

This is not only true for mercury, but also for the countless other engines of growth industries and products that, we believe, will make us the world economic leader.

This wealth will come at a cost we cannot afford. But who will explain this to our industrial leaders and planners? For them, health and environmental considerations are a luxury we cannot afford.

According to them, we revel in dirty industries, toxic products and lenient regulatory standards, because we are poor. In their pernicious mind, when it comes to importing the most toxic products, we must do so, because we are a modern economy.

But when it comes to regulating that toxic product -- something the industrialised world does because it is a modern economy -- we become poor and persecuted.

Environmental considerations become a western conspiracy.

Let us be clear that the only reason that industry gets away with murder -- slow and deliberate -- is because we know so little about what it is doing to our health and our environment.

We allow huge mercury imports, because we don't have researchers and epidemiologists working to uncover the horrendous diseases it is leaving in its trail.

It is, at the end, a conspiracy of silence. And it is working.

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Sunita Narain