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The world’s dumping yard

By Rohit Inani

6 February 2017

Delhi has become an informal electronic waste management hub.
Dismantling electronic waste in New Delhi Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dismantling electronic waste in New Delhi
Source: Wikimedia Commons

(This is an essay from our March 2015 print quarterly, ‘Labour and its discontents’. See more from the issue here.)

It is a fine, late-January morning in South Delhi. The city, after bearing the winter cold, is basking in the sun’s warmth. On my way to the metro station, I encounter several groups of people, some hunched over a table outside a café, cigarette in hand, while others stand at a corner engrossed in discussions about the upcoming State Assembly elections, in which the resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Modi faces Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party. The election issues range from development, electricity and water to the state of the under-class. Here and there, people are also heard talking about the mounting problem of Delhi’s pollution levels.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently ranked Delhi as the world’s most polluted city. The government has rejected this ranking, saying that Delhi is not that dirty and that the levels of pollution are not as dangerous as claimed. The general populace blames the rise in transportation, rapid industrialisation, close proximity to the Thar Desert and Punjab and Haryana’s rice fields for the poor air quality. Meanwhile, another problem, mostly ignored by the government, is escalating and is slowly transforming not only the city’s breathing space but its demographics and economy.

In August 2014, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) published a report saying that the National Capital Region (NCR), which encompasses the territory of New Delhi and surrounding urban areas, is emerging as the world’s e-waste dumping yard. It is likely to generate 95,000 metric tonnes per annum by 2017, from the current 55,000 metric tonnes per annum. The report went on to say that 35,000 to 45,000 children, aged between 10 and 14, have been engaging in various e-waste activities in Delhi’s yards and workshops, without adequate health protection.

Into the dumping yards
At the Kashmere Gate metro station, I switch to the Red Line, snaking to the east and northeast of the city. Seelampur, my destination, is two stations away, and the metro – above ground, now – cuts across flyovers built over the dying Yamuna. Outside, slums and haphazardly built neighbourhoods are visible, as are small dumping grounds. This is unlike the city I left an hour ago, the symbol of cosmopolitan India with its wide, paved roads, express flyovers and swanky new bungalows. Dodging a crowd of rickshaw pullers and street hawkers, I light a cigarette and ask my way around the back streets of Seelampur

Here, narrow lanes are congested with cycles and autos at every turn and I see people carrying discarded televisions and dozens of circuit boards. Small-time traders have set up makeshift dismantling centres, where children squat over circuit boards, cathode ray tubes and wires, taking out whatever can be recycled and sold: circuit boards, LEDs, capacitors, transistors and condensers. “You should have come here at the crack of dawn, when the trucks arrive with all the waste,” says a trader. He tells me about Seelampur, a predominantly Muslim area, and the struggles of the neighbourhood to survive. The trader points towards the bylanes, behind which lie a nullah, a dumping yard for the remaining waste materials. Late at night you can see people burning circuit boards, PVC wires and other toxic components, he tells me.

Seelampur is part of the larger informal, and mostly illegal, e-waste market in India. This market is largely unregulated, with informal recyclers controlling over 90 percent of the e-waste recycling market according to reports by Toxics Link, an influential non-profit organisation. The process of recycling generally involves acid burning and incineration, and the emission of toxic fumes and gases, which pollute the surrounding air. Eyewitnesses claim that the remaining waste is increasingly dumped in the Yamuna. Waste from electronic components includes cadmium, lead, mercury, lithium, copper, selenium, zinc, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and brominated flame retardants, among other highly toxic and carcinogenic substances. Most of these substances are complex, and are difficult to recycle even in environmentally sound settings in developed countries, with the latest technology and within appropriate, enclosed facilities.

Mustafabad is 30 minutes from Seelampur, along a dusty, long and straight road crammed with madly honking auto-rickshaws. I arrive near Purana Mustafabad and walk towards gali number two. Mustafabad is another illegal e-waste recycling and dismantling hub, situated in northeast Delhi. Along the main road is a dump yard, in front of which drains overflow. The road is clogged with filthy water, and you have to tiptoe over bricks to cross it. Inside the dump yard, I see children picking waste materials and tossing them into their dirty, tattered bags. Some squat, picking at circuit boards with bare hands.

Sajir Ahmed is in his mid-50s. He greets me warmly and pulls up a chair. He sits in his small shop all day; it is the only authorised e-waste recycling unit in Mustafabad. “Mustafabad is worse than Seelampur,” he says, alluding to the fact that Mustafabad is one of the most notorious of the dumping hubs. “Most of the recyclers in Mustafabad, and in Delhi, are illegal.” Other processing hubs include Shastri Nagar, Mauzpur, Turkman Gate, Bawana and Narela, while Mandoli, according to Ahmed, forms the out-market for recycling, where recycled goods are sold after processing.

Though Delhi is not the major producer of e-waste, most e-waste from across the country – such as from Bangalore and Mumbai – lands here. The story of east and northeast Delhi’s ugly transformation is tied up with the rise of illegal recycling in these areas. Many factors contribute to the thriving business in Delhi – its connectivity to other parts of the country, the many surrounding towns in which hundreds of small units treat waste (such as Moradabad, Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur and Meerut) and the availability of cheap migrant labour. In Mustafabad, for instance, more than 85 percent of households are involved directly or indirectly in recycling, Ahmed tells me. Quick money, good networks, lack of government control and a huge informal market have shaped the trade.

Without basic technical knowledge about proper handling and disposal of hazardous waste, people jump into the trade to make a living, risking their health and environment. “Pick any house in the area and go inside, you will see people burning waste. Everybody will deny this, but they are burning it on a daily basis, in their home, in their workshop backyards, everywhere, unaware of the toxic content. This place has become almost unlivable,” Ahmed says. Later, I meet Abdul Wajid, who runs his father’s waste trade. After some hesitation he allows me inside his workshop. On one side is a large pile of small box-like electronic components, with wires sticking out. “We burn these because they cannot be sold,” he says. The condensers will be sold in Seelampur, and the rest of the components packed off to Mandoli and Moradabad, which are two large markets for the final recycled components to be sold to buyers.

Government failures
Over the course of a decade (which is a long time to ignore the escalating danger to a city’s environment, not to mention the slow decay of an often neglected part of a metropolis), Delhi’s dumping yards have been mushrooming into something larger – a haven for the dumping of illegally imported e-waste. The problem originated in the late 1980s and 1990s, when India witnessed a boom in the electronic market, pushed by Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of an ‘electronic revolution’ in India, followed by the global IT explosion of the late 1990s. Delhi was already a large market for scrap metal, and began its transformation into a global e-waste recycling and dumping hub.

In 1990, India signed the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme, and ratified it in 1992 (183 countries are now party to this convention). The Convention was intended to restrict the transboundary movement of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries under the guise of export, in response to what developing countries termed ‘toxic colonialism’. Although India is a signatory of the Convention, and importing certain categories of hazardous waste is deemed illegal by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), e-waste from around the world (the US, EU, Australia, Japan, Canada, Norway, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait) finds its way into India’s informal market, largely due to loopholes in environmental laws. The latest revision to the e-waste bill, ‘The E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011’, fails to ban the import of waste even after repeated appeals and letters from Toxics Link and other environmental research groups.

An important factor in the inflow of e-waste into the country is the twisted stand taken by some countries to push the exports of e-waste by invoking Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). A Rajya Sabha report officially tabled in Parliament reported that some developed countries are making full use of FTAs, or so-called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), to export their waste to the developing world. Largely unspoken quid-pro-quo deals are made between partnering countries. For instance, Japan promised the Philippines access to their nursing and labour markets, while Thailand was enticed by Japanese mass-transit investment for Bangkok. It was recently reported that Japan and the EU were negotiating a similar FTA with the Indian government, in an attempt to heavily increase the export of hazardous and toxic wastes to India. In the study published in August 2014, ASSOCHAM reported that the US exports the largest amount of e-waste to India (42 percent), followed by China and the EU. The report claimed that “Delhi alone gets around 86 percent of the electronic waste generated in the developed world.”

During our conversation, Sajir Ahmed pointed to a large box, wrapped in a jute bag, which he claimed contained waste imported to India through the ports of Mumbai and Chennai. This finds its way to the inland sea depot at Okhla, where traders bid for fresh consignments.

Illegal imports
In 2003, Toxics Link – which identifies itself as a “group of people working together for environmental justice and freedom from toxics” – brought the issue of e-waste management into the public domain through research and outreach. This contributed towards the pressure on the government to draft the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules (2003), which brings hazardous waste generated and handled in the country under its purview, with intent to control and regulate the market.

In 2005, Vijay J Darda, then Member of Parliament, introduced the Electronic Waste (Handling and Disposal) Bill, 2005, in the Rajya Sabha. The bill did not address the issue of the import of hazardous waste, but instead instituted penalties for recyclers involved in illegal recycling. Although the bill fell under the ambit of a ‘Private Member’s Bill’, it gave ‘rule-making power’ to the government to frame regulations on e-waste. It lapsed with the expiry of Darda’s term in 2010, although he claims that the government took notice of it when revising the existing draft rules. In an email, Darda wrote:

In my view to tackle the menace of e-waste proper legislation was required. Since import of e-waste was being taken care of by Hazardous waste (Management & Handling, Transboundary Movements) Rules, an enactment for proper disposal and handling seemed to be need of hour.

According to the 2008 Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling, and Transboundary Movement) Rules, import is permitted for re-use, recycling and reprocessing but not for disposal. With permission, hazardous waste can be imported for ‘actual users’; traders, however, are not allowed to import e-waste. In 2011, these Rules were revised by the government into the E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, which championed greater producer responsibilities and the establishment of scrap collection centres across the county, under the purview of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). However, the bill failed to ban the import of hazardous waste, ignored those in the unorganised sector and failed to provide for their rehabilitation.

Despite revised waste regulations, imported waste still enters India’s dockyards. The containers are unloaded at India’s major ports. In 2010, reports suggested that Kochi was turning into a major centre for hazardous e-waste imports, which are later transported to the Inland Container Depots throughout the country. In the same year, Tehelka reported that Customs and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) officials were tipped off about a vessel sailing towards Kochi with hazardous waste onboard. The customs officials seized five containers of photocopiers and four old computers. The DRI officials revealed that the consignment was bound for Kolkata, Delhi and Rajasthan. A report officially tabled in the Rajya Sabha claimed that in 2010, more than 120 tonnes of e-waste in eight containers – imported from various countries by different companies – were seized in Chennai. “Of the total five consignments, one was from Australia, one from Canada, two from South Korea and one from Brunei. Subsequent examination revealed that the consignments consisted of very old, used and unusable computer monitors, CPUs and processors, control panels, electrical motor parts, printers and keyboards,” the report stated. Imported e-waste mostly arrives through strategic international port cities like Singapore and Dubai, which serve as transit centres.

The e-waste draft rules now restrict the import of electronic goods under the guise of ‘charity’. However, the absence of an outright ban on the import of second-hand electronic goods leaves options open for importers of e-waste. India’s export-import policy (EXIM) does not ban the import of second-hand electronic goods, including computers and CRT monitors, as donations to not-for-profit institutions like hospitals, research and development organisations, and those organisations under the Central and State governments’ umbrellas. The government claims that the import of e-waste is only for reuse, recycling or reprocessing. With most exporters/importers taking advantage of the loopholes in legislations and a lack of scanners and laxity at certain ports, illegal e-waste finds its way to India’s inland docks, from where it is directed to traders, recyclers and dismantlers in Delhi’s illegal waste hubs.

Dealing with the situation
On the last day of election campaigning for the Assembly elections, I come across a BJP support rally in Jangpura, a South Delhi neighbourhood. A bright yellow BMW convertible is followed by a dozen Royal Enfields, and promises of development are blasted from loudspeakers. I wait for the enthusiasts to pass and walk towards Toxics Link’s office.

Satish Sinha, Associate Director at Toxics Link, has been researching the e-waste menace for a long time now. I am here to understand the rise of the informal sector in Delhi’s recycling market, and how it managed to take control of over 80 percent of the recycling market, leaving government-promoted companies red-faced. “The informal sector was always present. Before, they were dealing in waste metals, paper, glass, etc., and then all of a sudden they came across electronic items that were at the end of their life,” Sinha says. After a pause he remarks: “They started opening up the goods and experimenting with it, and realised that there was more to it. And this is where the story of e-waste begins.”

During the heyday of India’s booming electronic goods market, the country took large amounts of e-waste from different countries. Over time, domestically-generated waste from across the country (such as Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Gujarat) started landing in Delhi. “That is because there was a huge network of waste dealers already existing in Delhi, and well connected with the scrap yards in Uttar Pradesh,” adds Sinha.

Over the years, Delhi’s waste traders have gained expertise in recycling processes. Some complicated processes can only be found in Delhi, Sinha tells me, such as making televisions out of recycled CRTs, or extracting valuable metals from the components. “People come from different parts of the country to buy stocks from here. The market is that big,” he said. Since 2003, Toxics Link has published a series of research reports that have brought to light the magnitude of the situation and how, if left unchecked and unregulated, it could become a serious environmental hazard. “It was then that other groups joined in, the government came on board and everybody wanted to understand the situation and find a way to deal with it,” said Sinha.

But once again, in the last three to four years, the serious implications of a growing illegal recycling market, and the threat it poses to the city, have been somewhat sidelined by the government. Official estimates put the figure of illegally imported waste in India at 50,000 metric tonnes per annum, the estimated indigenous annual generation stands at around 350,000 metric tonnes. Sinha stated that the estimated imported e-waste is upwards of 100,000 metric tonnes. “What worries me today is the tonnage of the waste, which is phenomenal,” Sinha tells me. “Apart from Delhi being a waste capital, it also has the worst air quality. Don’t you see a direct relationship here somehow? The scale at which unscientific disposal is happening is alarming.”

In 2009, T K Joshi (Director, Occupational and Environment Programme at the Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi) surveyed 250 people working as recyclers and dismantlers. He found that almost all suffered from bronchitis and asthma. Joshi later reported that he had found dangerously high levels – 10 to 20 times higher than normal – of lead, mercury and chromium in blood and urine samples. Though the administration has done much to control pollution levels by pushing for stricter emissions norms and forcing buses, autorickshaws and new light commercial vehicles to run on compressed natural gas (CNG), all efforts appear to have been in vain. Pollution levels continue to increase every year. The administration has turned a blind eye to its mushrooming waste recycling dumping yards.

“There is a series of measures the government needs to take if it is really serious about controlling the import of e-waste,” says Sinha. I ask him what measures he means. “The government can improve the intelligence network; set up scanners at all the major ports; they can track waste moving from other countries; they can take the issue to multilateral forums on grounds of treaty violation. See, we know where the waste comes from – there are a select number of countries,” he replies.

The next day, I receive an email from Sinha. I find attached a copy of a Ministry of Commerce and Industry notification, signed by Anup K Pujari, Director General of Foreign Trade, dated 28 February 2013. It was in response to repeated appeals from Toxics Link and other environmental research groups to curb the inflow of imports by restricting second-hand electronic goods in the form of ‘charity’. The latest notification restricts the import of all capital second-hand goods, including personal computers, laptops and air-conditioners. Next, it states that the ‘re-furbished’ and ‘re-conditioned’ ‘spares’ of capital goods are free to be imported.

The export of e-waste from developed to poorer countries is not uncommon throughout the world. In recent years, India has been largely importing hazardous e-waste from the US, EU, Japan and West Asia in the name of charity and recycling. During my conversation with Sinha, he told me that Toxics Link – along with other like-minded groups – plan on approaching the government once again to completely ban the import of waste, and even if the government turns a blind eye again now, a larger problem faces India. The uncontrolled rise of illegal waste management, which remains widely unorganised and concentrated mainly in Delhi, poses a huge environmental risk if left unchecked.

In the course of reporting this story, a common thread of opinion ran from the backstreet recyclers of Mustafabad to the environmentalists fighting for stronger laws: the necessary involvement of the formal and informal sectors, bridged by the government, in putting an end to Delhi’s illegal dumping yards.

~Rohit Inani is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. He has reported for the Caravan, Tehelka and Yahoo, among others. He can be reached at [email protected]

(This is an essay from our March 2015 print quarterly, ‘Labour and its discontents’. See more from the issue here.)

One Response to “The world’s dumping yard”

  1. J. Blue says:

    Solid narration. Very important story.

    Display on sidebar: yes

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