This article has been authored by Ramya Singh, a second-year student of RMLNLU Lucknow.
In the last quarter of December,2019 a news rolled stating that a virus has taken many innocent lives in the city of Wuhan in China. Within a span of a few months this virus has taken over the world by storm and on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared it to be a global pandemic. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected all the nations socially but majorly economically. All the individuals have been struggling to overcome these social, economic and even psychological struggles, but unfortunately as of now no sign of relief is in the vicinity of the near future. To combat this situation, various techniques are being adopted such as the scheme of lockdown, sanitization, work from home and zero contact services.
Specifically taking a stance on the Indian scenario, it has managed to not let a humongous population of 1.38 billion people get eaten up by this virus. However, the nation while fighting against the virus has faced many disrupting situations. Being a politically and religiously driven country, the situations have also been circumventing these aspects. Unfortunately, the present ongoing fight with the virus is inept in ensuring a secured future. The real fight would begin once this virus subsides with the release of the vaccines. The fact of the economic decline to come is quite evident and is being highly recognised but the depleting effects on the environment are going under cover.
With the onset of the lockdown, the amount of released carbon has reduced and the skies have cleared up. The air and water qualities due to the reduced pollution have improved. But due to this virus, the concept of recycling has vanished. Due to encouraged use of disposable items the amount of production of plastics has increased manifolds. Sanitizer bottles, masks, disposable gloves and other accessories are being widely used. Other than the plastics, the other waste which is being immensely generated is the ones from hospitals and quarantine centres. Such wastes, termed as Bio Medical Waste (hereinafter BMW) happens to be potentially dangerous.
Every hospital tends to generate Bio Medical Waste and to some extent even common households. It is not widely recognized by the common man. However, it is indispensable for the State to take some action upon it. For this, the Indian government back in the year 1998 released Bio Medical Waste Management (hereinafter BMWM) Rules, 1998. These BMWM Rules contain the provisions, rules and guidelines to be followed by the generating and handling bodies of this potentially toxic waste, such as the hospitals, health care facilities and treatment facilities.
With the advancement in time and requirements, the BMWM Rules were amended in the 2016 with the aim to improve the segregation, transportation, disposal methods, and to decrease environmental pollution so as to change the dynamic of BMW disposal and treatment in the country. Bio Medical Waste Management Rules 2016 would not have met the demands created by this ongoing pandemic and thus to overcome the same these guidelines have been amended for the fourth time. On July 21, 2020 a notification was released mentioning the changes in the BMWM Rules, 2016. Now the newly added provisions include guidelines to be followed for the waste generated during the treatment of the COVID-19 patients including PPE kits worn by doctors and health-care workers and other various necessary instruments and medicines.
Before going further into the discussion of the amendments incorporated in the newly released amended enactment it would be beneficial to get acquainted with certain facts. It is imperative to know what is meant by Bio Medical Waste and its harmful effects. Also, the fact that the action taken by the State in revising the guidelines is not gratuitous but is in accordance with the constitutionally mandated duties.
Bio Medical Waste and its Implications
Biomedical waste (BMW) can be defined as “any waste produced during the diagnosis, treatment, or immunization of human or animal research activities pertaining thereto or in the production or testing of biological or in health camps”. Of the total waste generated, 85% is general whereas 15% is hazardous in nature which is infectious, toxic and even radioactive. This 15% though a small percentage is capable of affecting the health of the people and the environment gravely, if not disposed and treated properly and consequentially has effects on health of the people and the environment.
The improper disposal of bio-medical waste is highly hazardous, especially when it gets mixed with municipal solid waste and is dumped in landfills. The waste contains potentially harmful microorganisms that can infect hospital patients, health workers and the general public. Other potential hazards may include drug-resistant microorganisms which spread from health facilities into the environment. When not disposed properly the syringes and injections create a risk of injury, infections such as HIV and HBV and also increases the chances of syringes getting reused in the low-and-middle income countries. It releases pathogens and toxic pollutants into the environment posing health risks and disposal of untreated waste in landfills can lead to the contamination of surface drinking and even ground waters.
Not only the disposal but improper treatment is also harmful. Treating with chemical disinfectants might result in release of chemical substances into the environment. The other way of treatment is by the use of incinerators, but even that poses major threats such as, the workers would get toxic exposure to pharmaceutical products, chemical burns might arise in the context of disinfection, sterilization or waste treatment activities, air pollution may also be a result of the release of particulate matter during medical waste incineration. The list does not end here, there might also be a risk of getting thermal injuries and radiation burns occurring in conjunction with open burning and the operation of medical waste incinerators.
This issue even after having such potentially hazardous implications has not been widely recognized to be an issue of global importance until June 2007, when a meeting was held by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva where the core principles for achieving safe and sustainable management of health-care waste were developed. It was discussed that the harmful effects of health-care waste to the people and environment can be reduced through right investment of resources and complete commitment. It was also asserted that all stakeholders associated with financing and supporting health-care activities are morally and legally obliged to ensure the safety of others and therefore should share in the cost of proper management of BMW. In addition to this it is the duty of manufacturer to produce environment-friendly medical devices to ensure its safe disposal. WHO also reinforced that government should designate a part of the budget for creation, support, and maintenance of efficient health-care waste management systems which include novel and ingenious methods/devices to reduce the bulk and toxicity of health-care waste. Non-governmental Organizations were also encouraged to undertake program and activities that contribute in this incentive.
There also exist three important international agreements and conventions namely, Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and Minamata Convention on Mercury. which deal in BMWM, environment protection and its sustainable development. They also have suggestive value and are particularly pertinent for the government to be kept in mind while preparing waste management policies.
Constitutional Guarantees for Action on Bio Medical Waste Management
Man is born with certain inalienable rights of justice, liberty, equality, fraternity and dignity. Based on this ideology, the Constitution of India under Part III guarantees its citizen certain fundamental rights. Covered from Article 14 to Article 32, the fundamental rights namely include right to equality, right to freedom, right to religion, right against exploitation, cultural and educational rights and right to constitutional remedies.
Within the scope of these basic rights and under the purview of right to freedom comes the right to life and personal liberty enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution. The aim of this article is progressive in the sense that life and personal liberty are not objective terms but subjective. They are not exhaustive but inclusive and have the capacity to include all general aspects of human life as the time demands. This right duly encompasses “right to unpolluted environment which includes unpolluted air and water and maintenance of ecological balance”. Thus, any deprivation of the same would be violative of basic right and actionable in the Court of law. Fundamental rights are not only for the protection of individual interests but they are also positive obligations of the State to take steps for the welfare of the individual.
Hence to ensure that the right to unpolluted environment is protected it is the State’s duty to takes steps to ensure the same. Part IV of the Indian Constitution comprises certain guidelines known as Directive Principles of State Policies. These are the guidelines for the State to follow while enacting any legislation. Article 47 of the Constitution states that it is the “duty of the state to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health”, and Article 48-A of the Constitution inserted through 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1976 states that “protection and improvement of environment” is also the duty of the State.
Not only the State but also the “courts are duty bound to take action and always give necessary directions, when it is called upon to give effect to directive principles, court is not to shrug its shoulders and say that priorities are matter for the policy making authority”.
The people thus have a right to ensure their health by living in unpolluted environment and raised awareness regarding level of nutrition and it becomes the State’s duty to take into cognizance these aspects and enact a legislation which supports and flourishes on the same perspective. Also, the Courts are to take recourse to necessary actions when the State fails to comply with its duty.
Bio Medical Waste Management Rules for Covid-19
In lieu of guaranteeing the citizens of this country with their fundamental right of right to life and also fulfilling its own duty, the Government was forced to revise the already existing Bio Medical Waste Management Rules of 2016 due to the spread of Corona. It had to introduce certain stringent measures which quintessentially deal with the pandemic.
As mentioned above, the revised Bio Medical Waste Management Rules, 2016 have been published on 21st July 2020. The Government has taken more strict measures in the latest revision which provides for guidance on segregation of general solid waste and bio-medical waste from quarantine centres/homecare/healthcare facilities treating COVID-19 patients and recommends disposal of PPE kits. Unlike the earlier 2016 Rules, the new rules have to be followed by all the stakeholders including isolation wards, quarantine centres, sample collection centres, laboratories, ULBs and common biomedical waste treatment and disposal facilities.
The pandemic has altered the entire world socially as well as economically. Social changes when occur, apart from demographic variables affect the present intellect and knowledge set of the society and the political system. To adapt to the new changes and ideologies, techniques and measures are required to be formulated and the same have to be effectively applied by the political system. A crisp illustration of the same is the newly formulated amendments incorporated in the Bio Medical Waste Management Rules 2016. COVID has made sanitation a worldwide mandate. BMWM should be a teamwork with committed government backing, good BMW practices followed by both health-care workers and health care facilities, continuous monitoring of BMW practices, and strong legislature.
The current BMWM 2016 Rules are an improvement over earlier rules in terms of improved segregation, transportation, and disposal methods, to decrease environmental pollution and ensure the safety of the staff, patients, and public. Moreover, eco-friendly systems for disposal of BMW should be encouraged. The way the corona warriors comprising of the medical society and health care workers have collectively and selflessly worked day and night for the treatment of the patients, BMWM should also be taken seriously as a shared responsibility. It is our fundamental right to live in clean and safe environment. In such catastrophic times by releasing the revised guidelines, the government has acted upon its duty and provided relief. Now the task is for effective application which would be possible when all participants in BMWM inclusive of the people, the State and the Courts cooperate in symphony and pledge to guarantee a cleaner and greener environment.