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Plastic and Human Rights: Scenario in Kodungaiyur

Edition: January - March 2019

Human rights can be defined as those basic inalienable freedoms and rights to which every individual is entitled to right from birth and throughout his/her entire life by virtue of being a human being. They are universal in nature and are guaranteed to every person without any discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, religion, colour, language, nationality, caste, etc. The right to life is the main right from which the other rights including the right to health and the right to environment have been derived. These rights are enshrined and protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976), regional human rights treaties, national constitutions and domestic laws.

While traditionally, legal action for human rights violation is brought against the state, it has been increasingly recognised, through the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other instruments, that businesses also have a duty to respect human rights through the course of their operations. This is especially important when it comes to waste management and the plastic pollution crisis. Plastics violate human rights throughout their lifecycle, from extraction of fossil fuels - leading to climate change, refining and manufacture which leads to release of harmful carcinogens, usage leading to ingestion of chemicals through leaching of plastic, and finally at the waste management stage wherein it violates the right to health and environment of waste workers and communities residing near the dump yards.

However, most solid waste management systems view the plastic pollution crisis as an issue of bad governance and solutions are couched in terms of a push for proper collection and the prevention of ‘littering’ or ‘garbage’. A solid waste management system can be holistic and sustainable only if all the links in the system from producers, governments, and citizens are made aware and responsible for their duties in this regard. Producers in the fast moving consumer goods sector have primary responsibility for the impacts of their production and packaging choices, and must be held accountable for the entire lifecycle of the product, including the manufacture, use in packaging and delivery, and post-consumption pathway.

Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) is one instrument to systematically assess and measure the impact of business policies, programmes, projects or any other interventions on the enjoyment of workers, residents, and communities. CAG’s work in Kodungaiyur, Chennai, uses the HRIA concept to assess the human rights impacts of business practices through the lens of waste, with the goal of pushing for tighter regulations and liability laws around producer accountability. The impacts on health and well-being and the physical environment are undertaken to establish violations of the rights to health and environment, respectively, because these rights are interdependent and the violations, more often than naught, occur simultaneously.

The violation of the right to health is sought to be established using ethnography (the study of people and cultures), which has been acknowledged as a suitable method for identifying healthcare issues as they occur within the natural context. The HRIA project explores the impact on four focus groups in Kodungaiyur (residents, scrap shop workers, conservancy workers, and informal waste pickers) using three instruments: symptoms diary, in-depth interviews, and information from healthcare providers in the locality. Symptoms diaries are a simple tool to record non-invasive, self-reported data about symptoms experienced and perceived by a set of participants over a period of time in an organised manner to aid in the diagnostic process. The in-depth interviews of residents and non-residents help identify and understand other issues relating to health, social, property, and environment arising from the waste. Information from healthcare providers helps to cross-validate information on illnesses. The team maintained symptoms diaries for three months for 66 participants: 38 residents, 11 conservancy workers, 11 informal waste pickers and 6 scrap shop workers, and interviewed 50 additional respondents (18 residents, 11 conservancy workers, 10 informal waste pickers and 11 scrap shop workers).

Data collected on the health and well-being of people in Kodungaiyur reveal a range of problems. The most frequently experienced symptoms are those that affect the skeletal and muscular system (31.4%), which include severe to mild pain in the limbs, stiff joints, and back pain. Common respiratory issues are also widely experienced (30.8%). These include persistent cold and cough, sneezing, wheezing and breathing difficulties that the participants attributed to poor air quality caused by the burning of garbage in the dump yard and emissions from garbage trucks. Some residents also attributed this to the burning of plastics in small home-based recycling facilities. Residents attributed sleeplessness and headaches as an effect of the noise from the trucks and lorries plying in and out of the dump yard. The respondents reported skin problems (itching, scales, patches, boils), eye and ear infections, and abdominal problems that are primarily caused by poor quality of water in the area. A few women reported menstrual problems, such as irregular periods.

Samples of air, water, and leachate from different locations in Kodungaiyur tested positive for the presence of heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. The permissible limits set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) for certain metals has been exceeded for some heavy metals. The adverse impacts of the chemicals found in Kodungaiyur on human health have been long-established. So it is a matter of concern that the Kodungaiyur dumpyard can continue to exist or that the government will construct a waste incineration plant at the same location, thereby creating another source of pollution.

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