India on 30 September 2014 signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The convention is named after the Japanese city Minamata that has become synonymous with deadly mercury contamination since 1950.
The Minamata Convention gives five years time to India to control and reduce emissions from new power plants and 10 years time for the already existing power plants.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. It was agreed at the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in Geneva, Switzerland on 19 January 2013.
The Minamata Convention is part of a cluster of agreements that include:
• Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and their disposal.
• Rotterdam Convention for managing international trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides.
• Stockholm Convention on the restriction and elimination of the production and use of persistent organic pollutants.
The major highlights of the Minamata Convention on Mercury include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing ones, control measures on air emissions, and the international regulation of the informal sector for artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Mercury pollution in India
In India, Mercury pollution has not been a part of the environmental discourse. However, mercury pollution concerns have hit various places.
At Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, controversy regarding Mercury pollution has existed for years following the closure of a thermometer manufacturing factory of Hindustan Unilever Ltd. The factory was shut down by a closure order of the state pollution control board in March 2001.
The second high-profile case is that of the Singrauli region that falls in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh and also spills over into Madhya Pradesh. This is a huge private and public sector industrial and power-generating cluster. It is estimated that around 17 percent of India’s power plant mercury emissions are from this cluster alone.
In December 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Forests declared Singrauli as being among the 43 most critically polluted industrial clusters in the country.
Apart from Kodaikanal and Singrauli, Ganjam in Odisha is another area where mercury pollution has reached serious levels.
Considering all these factors, it is imperative that India should now establish and enforce mercury emission standards for coal-fired power plants.
Mercury is used in the chemical and petrochemical industries and also in household products like compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and thermometers. It is heavily used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining to separate gold from the ore.
Mercury emissions to the atmosphere also take place from coal-fired power plants. Mercury is present in industrial effluents that are let into water bodies and the sea and enters the human food chain through the consumption of fish. This is what caused the disaster at Minamata in the 1950s.
Mercury pollution arises from a variety of sources. Contaminated sites including old mines, landfills and waste disposal locations are also important sources of mercury pollution.