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Passing the poisonous parcel

Priti Mahesh

Project Manager Toxics Link, India

11 a.m.: In a small room in the bylanes of Silampur in East Delhi, Aslam is busy breaking open computers. He’s been doing this work for years at this recycling hub and knows exactly which parts are valuable and need to be separated. His tools are at hand; hammer, screwdriver, pliers and blowtorch.

He shares this 6 feet by 8 feet workplace with three other teenage boys. They work 10 hours a day, for a meagre US$3-5 each. Aslam’s friend Sabir is using a blowtorch to remove the so-called ‘jewels’ (such as capacitors and integrated circuits) from the circuit boards. The small, poorly ventilated room immediately fills up with fumes, making the boys uncomfortable, but they wipe their eyes and carry on. They know these fumes. They inhale them everyday. What they don’t know is that they contain lead, a poison that is permanently damaging their lungs and kidneys.

4 p.m.: In Tilla Shabazpur, a small village on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, Suresh is busy trying to extract precious metals from printed circuit boards, using chemical poisons like concentrated nitric and sulphuric acid, caustic soda, mercury and arsenic. His wife Kajal works in the same unit and, with a couple of other women, is scraping paint off circuit boards that have been dipped in caustic soda solution for a few hours. Her hands are a chequered map of cuts and bruises, from prolonged metal scraping and caustic soda exposure. Her back hurts from the bent posture she’s been holding for long hours every day. The couple’s two children, aged 3 and 4, are playing within this informal recycling junkyard, strewn with drums filled with acid, caustic soda and waste. The family has no idea of the toll that the chemical cocktail inhalation they inhale every day is taking on their health and vital organs.

This is the daily story not just of Aslam, Shabir, Suresh, Kajal and their families, but of thousands like them working around India. More than a hundred thousand people are employed in these informal junkyards, mainly concentrated in and around large cities. Men, women and children, spend 10 to 12 hours a day in this toxic environment, trying to salvage components or materials from discarded Electronic and Electrical waste (E-waste), with little or no knowledge of the hazards hidden in such junked equipment as computers, televisions and mobile phones. And lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, BFRs (flame retardants used in plastic) and other harmful substances — all present in E-waste — contaminate the environment as well as jeopardise health.

Around 50 million tonnes of E-waste are generated worldwide each year, the larger share in the developed nations of Europe and North America. Growing economies like India and China produce relatively small amounts now, although this is expected to grow manifold in the next few years. They are also hugely concerned about illegal dumping. In all, it is estimated that as much as a third of all E-waste generated in EU countries and the United States ends up on their shores by legal or illegal means.

In India, it is mainly processed by people like Aslam and Suresh — predominately migrants to cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata, in search of livelihoods. The rudimentary recovery processes include physical breaking and segregating hazardous components, open burning, and melting and heating lead and mercury-laden components. Residues and effluents are released into open drains or nearby vacant land, leading to water and soil contamination. The large numbers of women and children engaged in these activities are even more vulnerable to exposure. Lowcost, poor working conditions and cheap labour makes recycling a lucrative business: no one accounts for the environmental or health costs involved.

The main reason for such unsound domestic waste management practice is the absence of a clear and wellenforced E-waste policy: domestic electronics and electricals producers are able to shy away from taking any responsibility for the toxic waste that they have a clear role in creating. This is also responsible for the illegal imports of E-waste into India and for the cross-border dumping often carried out in the garb of charity and under the guise of bridging the ‘digital divide’ between developed and developing nations.

The picture is certainly bleak, but there are some grounds for hope. Civil society organizations have been campaigning hard on two fronts; to put an end to the crossborder toxic trade, and to introduce extended producer responsibility — under which producers are made responsible for their products right to the end of their lives — so that E-waste is better managed in India. But until these initiatives bear fruit, the brunt of this onslaught will continue to be borne by the environment and the vulnerable segments of our society, labouring away in the dark alleys of E-waste recycling.

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