October 25, 2006, Down To Earth
New Delhi, India

World over, eco-labelling has emerged as an effective method to inculcate environmental sensitivity in consumers. Eco-labels are essentially certificates granted to products that satisfy certain environmental yardsticks — such as recycle-ability, use of natural or recycled materials in their manufacture and low energy use. India too has its an eco-mark, the matka (earthen pitcher), introduced by the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) as far back as 1991.

The ministry claims that the symbol is apt, for the matka is a perfect example of a biodegradable product. “But,” contends Rajan Gandhi of Safety Action Group, Vadodra, Gujarat, “Agricultural topsoil is burnt at tremendous heat to make the matka . The process makes the soil lose all its physical and chemical properties. So, the earthen vessels are actually not as biodegradable as claimed by the moef ”.

In fact, question marks over India’s eco-mark transcend mere semiotics. In 1997, a study by the Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS), a voluntary organisation based in Jaipur, Rajasthan, found that more than 80 per cent people in Indian metros were oblivious of this certificate. In contrast, 80 per cent of Germany’s population knew of the country’s eco-mark, the ‘Blue Angel’. What’s more, even a large section of the industry was in the dark on the matka till some years back. Says Siva Sankar, general manager marketing of Pune-based Ecoboard, “Our company has been making particle boards — used in manufacturing furniture — from agro-residues (an environmentally friendly procedure) since 1986, but we learnt of India’s eco-mark only in 2001.” Sankar blames this on moef ’s poor awareness campaign.

However, mere awareness is not going to make much difference in the international market. “India’s ecomark has little standing in the international market,” says R Birudh, of Tata International, a Devas-based company in Maharashtra that earns 85 per cent of its turnover by exporting leather products. This is because the moef’ s criterion for awarding the certificate is less stringent than that followed in most parts of the world. Says A K Agarwal of Orient Paper Mills,“The matka certificate is awarded after analysing the individual process that goes into the making of a product. This is much less stringent than that followed in the European Union. Here, the entire lifecycle of a product is put to test before an eco-mark is awarded to it.”

Meanwhile, moef’s eco-mark has come in for opposition within government circles as well. Says Sanjay Kumar, director, Union ministry of commerce and industry, “Eco-labelling must be voluntary or it will hurt India in the World Trade Organization’s negotiations. For, such labels amount to technical barriers to trade.”

Agarwal sums the issue aptly, “With the country becoming a manufacturing, hub, India must have a globally accepted yardsticks for eco-labelling.

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