Delegates from some 140 countries and territories on Thursday signed a UN treaty to control mercury pollution after Tokyo pledged $2 billion to help poorer nations combat pollution. It is unfortunate that there was no representative from India at the Minamata Convention held at Kumamoto in Japan on October 2 despite approving the draft treaty in January this year. The government’s inexplicable decision to skip such a historic convention has lost the country an opportunity to take global leadership in phasing out mercury.
The convention draws its name from the shameful and wilful poisoning of the waters of Minamata Bay in Japan’s Kumamoto prefecture by the Chisso Corporation. The poisoning was brought to light in the mid-1950s by a doctor whose patients had damaged immune systems or who had developed brain or nervous system problems. Industrial pollution was suggested as a possible cause shortly thereafter. But it was not until 1968 that the factory stopped pumping out its mercury-laden waste. It has taken the victims of mercury poisoning in Minamata and surrounding areas over five decades to get justice and compensation, and even today there are affected groups that continue to battle with the company and government.
Even though environmental groups say the treaty stops short of addressing many key issues, it sets a phase-out date of 2020 for a list of products—including mercury thermometers—and gives governments 15 years to end mercury mining. According to WHO, there is no safe threshold for mercury. Mercury poisoning is popularly known as the Minamata disease because of the discovery of its effects on the unfortunate people living in that area.
Given the many uses of mercury, it can’t be banned altogether. The convention recognises this and only asks for a phasing out of the use of mercury over a 30-year period. It does, however, recommend a ban by 2020 of the import and export of mercury-containing products, including electrical switches and relays, batteries, lamps and bulbs, thermometers, blood pressure-measuring devices and certain cosmetics and soaps. If 50 countries that have signed the convention get it ratified by their elected bodies, it will come into force as an international convention. It will then be mandatory for all countries to formulate their own laws reflecting the main provisions of the convention.
There is no systematic data to ascertain how many people in India are affected by mercury poisoning. A decade ago, a major multinational was charged with disposing of mercury from its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal without following proper procedures. It required the intervention of environmental groups to establish this unpardonable attitude towards the disposal of dangerous waste. Ultimately, the company had to arrange for the soil from behind the plant to be removed.
It is undeniable that India’s regulation on waste discharge from chemical industries is notoriously lax. There is no justification, therefore, for India’s reluctance to sign such a convention. New Delhi dragging its feet on such a convention is all the more inexplicable as it amounts to a political and moral coup by China over India.
China is one of the biggest emitters of mercury in Asia. In addition to Cinnabar mines from where ore of mercury is extracted, it has several coal power plants, which also emit large amounts of mercury into the atmosphere. It also has small and artisanal gold mining, which contributes to the majority of emissions in the world. Yet, China has signed the treaty and committed to phasing out existing technologies. India, on the other hand, is promoting several coal power plants which emit mercury, severely affecting the health of people living next to them. The country has no policy to regulate and control mercury emissions.