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Toxic waste/E-waste: UN expert sees room for improvement for safe recycling in India

DELHI (21 January 2010) – UN Special Rapporteur Okechukwu Ibeanu acknowledged Thursday the progress achieved in India’s recycling sector, but warned that “a number of serious concerns remain to be properly addressed in order to minimise the adverse effects that hazardous activities, such as shipbreaking and the recycling of electronic waste (e-waste), have on the human rights of countless individuals working in these sectors or living close to the places where these activities take place.”

“I welcome the significant progress India has made in improving health and safety conditions in the shipbreaking yards, as witnessed by the considerable decrease in the number of work-related injuries resulting in death or permanent or temporary disabilities,” said the UN expert on the adverse effects of the movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights, at the end of his 10-day mission to the country.
“However,” stressed Mr. Ibeanu, “first and foremost, I urge the owners of the yards to comply with the existing labour and social security legislation, and on the Government to monitor its effective implementation.”

The Special Rapporteur noted that “training opportunities need to be improved, and personal protective equipments should be provided to, and used by, all workers in the yards. Medical facilities do not possess sufficient human, technical and financial resources to provide any treatment other than first aid for minor injuries, and there are no schools or formal education facilities for the children of those employed in the yards, 20 per cent of whom are accompanied by their families.”

In India, ships are currently dismantled on the beach, a method commonly referred to as “beaching”, and its actual impact on the surrounding environment and the livelihood of local communities relying on agriculture and fishing for their subsistence continues to be debated. “In order to ascertain the environmental impact of the shipbreaking industry,” Mr. Ibeanu said, “I recommend an independent study to assess the actual and potential adverse effects that may be caused by the discharge of hazardous material into the natural environment, as well as the level of risk.”

With regard to e-waste, the Special Rapporteur said that 97 per cent of the 400,000 metric tonnes of e-waste generated in India is dismantled and recycled in small-scale, informal laboratories where individuals are constantly exposed to over 50 hazardous chemicals or heavy metals that can cause serious health and environmental risks if not disposed in an environmentally safe manner.

“The main challenge ahead is that of creating appropriate incentives to ensure that obsolete electronic equipment are recycled in certified facilities that can dismantle and recycle them in an environmentally sound way that prevents the risk of health consequences for the workers involved or others and to ensure appropriate information is available on the hazards associated with e-waste, both for recycling workers and to the broader population,” Mr. Ibeanu said.
Based on the information collected during the visit, the Rapporteur will prepare a report and make recommendations on how to protect the human rights against the threats posed by the unsound management and disposal of toxic and dangerous products and wastes. His report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in 2010.

Okechukwu Ibeanu, Professor of Political Science at the University of Nigeria, was appointed Special Rapporteur in 2004 by the Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity.