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India, A Dumping Ground For Rich World’s Toxic Electronic Waste

Sifting through e-waste in Seemapuri
Sifting through e-waste in Seemapuri
Bismillah Geelani

SEEMAPURI — In this neighborhood on the outskirts of Delhi, electronic scrap keeps growing. Piles and piles of electronic waste or "e-waste" litter the narrow alleys here from old computer circuit boards and cables to discarded keyboards and phone handsets.

Mohammad Salman, 25, deals with such e-waste. "We collect it from all over the country, from waste pickers and other scrap dealers and then look for items that can be fixed," he says.

Salman says he sells the precious metals that can be found in e-waste. "We give it to bigger dealers and what they do with it is their business," says Salman.

Not far from Salman's shop, some laborers unload a truck full of computer monitors and break them into pieces with hammers. This area is a place where e-waste is illegally recycled.

Further down the same lane, 35-year-old Ansar burns a large circuit board with a blowtorch. He then pulls out some of its components with a pair of pliers. The acrid smell of smoke is suffocating. But Ansar looks unperturbed.

"Everyone has to do something for a living and this is our work. We take out those parts that can still be used and sell them to people who repair computers. Then we take out metals like copper and brass and finally we dip these boards into acid to get the gold that is there," says Ansar.

India generates the fifth-largest amount of e-waste in the world.

Rapid economic growth has led to a surge in the demand and production of electronic devices such as computers, mobile phones and televisions. But once these electronics fall apart after a few years, they end up in places like Seemapuri.

But often the e-waste is handled unsafely.

Most of the waste has a huge amount of toxicity, including lead, mercury, cadmium, bear phos and these all elements or chemicals are extremely harmful to human health and environment.

With such a large volume of waste, there are tonnes of chemicals present.

"When you deal with this in a manner which is rudimentary using a hammer, blow torch or acid you are releasing a large amount of toxins into the environment," said Satish Sinha, the associate director of Toxics Link, a New Delhi-based environmental group.

According to a 2014 United Nations' report India generates more than 2 million metric tons of e-waste each year.

That includes a huge amount of waste from abroad.

Until a few years ago, India along with several African countries was known as a global e-waste dumping ground.

That saw the government impose a ban on the importation of the toxic material.

Despite the ban e-waste still sneaks in and it's becoming a huge burden, says Sinha.

"In developed economies the cost of treating waste is extremely high, also the environmental controls are very strict and robust. So you need to invest in technology, you need to be sure of what you are omitting and that's why the cost of treating waste goes up in these countries," Sinha explained.

When it comes to developing economies the costs are almost negligible. So it becomes much easier for those countries to send their waste to developing economies and they sell the waste produced in developed countries.

Earlier this year, the government introduced new rules regarding the disposal of electronic waste, which pin more responsibility on manufacturers.

Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar explains, "the companies are now required to put in place a system through which they take back their products for recycling once they are discarded and this is the first time that we have set targets for them which they have to comply with."

"They have to make these arrangements before they launch their product in the market," stated Minister Javdekar.

Still environmentalists like Sinha are skeptical the new rules will work.

"In the previous law also, this provision was there, but the manufacturers are actually very reluctant to play their role."

Sinha says it's not just companies that to have be responsible, consumers too have to mind their waste.

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