Seelampur, a suburb of northeastern Delhi, is the morgue of India’s ongoing telecom revolution. Scores of single-room asbestos-roofed establishments amid perfunctory footpaths are home to deceased mobile phones, discarded computer peripherals, unwanted electronic game boxes, vestigial tablets, and almost any imaginable material contraption that involves a circuit board.
Aslam Nawaz, 27, a resident who has “not known anywhere other than Seelampur” manages one of these establishments. There’s barely space to stand and the laughter of children can be heard from the backyard. There are three children who work in a sort of ragtag assembly line. Chinar, 12, sifts motherboards to check which ones are ‘good’ or can be refurbished. Ashraf and Parveen, 16 and 15, respectively, sit nearby and submerge the electronic boards in nitric acid to separate gold, copper and other precious metals. As a prelude to the acid bath, the boys also break the circuit board with their bare hands.
The proper way to do this is to use thick gloves and protective masks but the boys are “veterans”, according to Nawaz. “We do use the safety gear when required, but this is our life. I started out this way too and yes, there are accidents sometimes. But tell me what job doesn’t involve risk,” he asks, matter-of-factly.
In nearly two decades, Seelampur has risen to become one of the country’s most thriving electronic waste markets with about 50,000 people here estimated to be making a livelihood out of electronic waste. The average worker stands to earn ₹500-1,000 per day, with women and children being paid less than men.
Earlier this year, the United Nations reported a startling statistic: the world generated 44.7 million tonnes of electronic waste in 2016. India’s contribution to this was a significant 2 million tonnes. India is one of the fastest growing markets for electronics, and demand is projected to reach $400 billion by 2020 — and India’s contribution to electronic waste is expected to touch 5 million tonnes by the same year.
New laws mandate that electronic goods be broken down and dismantled responsibly, and in the formal sector. However, electronic graveyards like Seelampur continue to hold strong as they are responsible for close to 80% of the electronic goods that are reprocessed. The sheer number of recyclers and the unregulated dismantling practices mean that they can refurbish at lower prices than the organised recyclers.
The Central Pollution Control Board found in an inspection this year that several registered recyclers were not complying with safety practices and didn’t possess the required equipment. They continued to handle electronic waste as did their counterparts in Seelampur
There is change in the air, however, and Nawaz is worried by this. In 2016, the E-Waste (Management) Rules placed responsibility on electronic goods manufacturing companies and bulk consumers to collect and channel e-waste from consumers to authorised re-processing units. Laws to better manage e-waste have been around since 2011, mandating that only authorised dismantlers and recyclers collect electronic waste. But now, companies are required to set yearly collection targets linked to their production numbers.
The Rules also state that producers of electronic equipment must limit their use of hazardous heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium. By 2017, the government hoped, manufacturers — who account for the vast majority of e-waste — would get the hang of life under the new Rules and would outline targets as well as measures to collect their e-waste. It has not happened yet.
“There’s far more scrutiny than before. We already have to keep paying off cops or people from the government to keep our business running. However, the costs of adhering to everything in the rulebook are simply too high. We don’t get support from the government in terms of finance or loans to adhere to the prescribed recycling standards,” says Nawaz.
The detrimental effects of e-waste on human health and the environment is well-trodden ground. Electronic goods that are past their shelf life are broken down manually for precious metals or burnt or discarded in landfills, and go on to contaminate land and water.
The heavy metals present in e-waste are known to cause neurological and skin diseases, genetic defects and cancer in workers who handle them.
Refrigerators, ACs and washing machines contain steel, plastics and copper wiring. However, they also contain potentially harmful substances such as chlorofluorocarbon and hydrochloroflourocarbon (CFC/HCFC) gases, which have high ozone-depletion potential. Seelampur’s incinerators only add to the well-known toxicity of Delhi’s winter air.
Metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems and affect brain development in children, as well as harm the circulatory system, kidneys and reproductive system.
Gopal Bhandu, another resident of Seelampur, who deals in refurbished electronics, says that most workers in the region’s electronic waste industry are aware of the harmful effects of their trade. “Many children have breathing trouble, some have various skin ailments. But what choices do we have,” he asks.