Graveyard of  E-waste- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

Maine kabhi computer chalaya nahi, par tode bohut hain’’  (I have never used any computer but have dismantled many), said Arif Khan, 25, who has been in the business of recycling e-waste since the tender age of 12 years. Arif made his way in the labyrinthine alleys of Seelampur, while his smoking addiction stuck on. 

Arif and his family moved to Seelampur in 2009 from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, where he only finished fifth grade. After shifting to Seelampur, he had to quit his education to manage the poor economic condition of his family. Turning to another alley, Arif paused and quipped, “Yahan par sirf ek Arif nahi hai, hazaron Arif hain” (there’s not just one but a thousand Arifs employed in this business here). 

The Old Seelampur neighbourhood in North East Delhi is infamous for being an unorganised e-waste recycling hub, despite the fact that it addresses a significant issue with e-waste from both India and other international countries. When inquired about the location of the e-waste scrap market, the locals said that the “ganda nala” (dirty drain) is a well-known landmark for the market.

E-waste is defined as electronic products which are unwanted, broken and/or nearing the end of their “useful life”. Electronic items that are used every day include computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, and fax machines.

The national capital generates 20 crore kg of electronic waste (2.2lakh ton) every year. However, in the absence of an organised system to deal with discarded electronics, around 90% of them reach landfills or informal recyclers, a official from Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) said. 

According to a research done in 2018 on the thriving informal e-waste sector in Delhi NCR in 2018, nearly 5,000 e-waste processing units, mostly in east Delhi, were functioning without proper guidelines, precautions or norms.

Of them, Seelampur emerged as the biggest hotspot accounting for about 57 per cent of all the informal e-waste processing and handling units. Old Seelampur is home and bread earner for thousands of families, whose relatives are employed in the scrap of business. “There are more than 50,000 people who are employed in the business of e-waste recycling in this area alone,” said Khan. 

Khan identified himself as a small scrap trader and he deals with more than 500 kg of e-waste on a daily basis. He said that he will earn mere five thousand rupees for recycling e-waste. “I recycle waste computer screens, keyboards, mouses, printers, telephones and other electronic waste materials,” said Khan. He continued, “Recycling e-waste is an art. You have to hammer the monitor in a delicate way so that all remaining valuable parts of the monitor will not get damaged.” 

Screen, wires and rubber are some of the valuable parts that are extracted by the e-waste recyclers in Seelampur. Like Khan, thousands of other recyclers of electronic garbage worked with the waste without any safety equipment. Khan concurred that handling e-waste can be riskier for one’s health due to the increased likelihood that one will breathe in harmful fumes that are detrimental to health.

“I always do my work with bare hands but thanks to Allah (God) that I never suffered from any type of ailments. Though, I received small wounds while dealing with glass material but such injury is common in this business.” 

Hazardous reality
According to a 2018 study by Toxics Link – an NGO focused on environmental justice, “Open and manual dismantling, shredding, burning, leaching and uncontrolled dumping of electronic waste not only directly harm the exposed workers but also hurt the environment through contaminating soil, ground water, surface water and polluting air.”

Printed circuit boards are high in lead; open crushing and burning of Cathode Ray Tube often generates toxic fumes; mercury is released through switches, old computers and flat screens during the dismantling or incineration process; and cadmium content from mobile phones has often reached landfill sites, contaminating the soil and groundwater there, researchers noted.

Dr Gunjan Verma, Consultant, Dermatology department at Manipal Hospital said that people living near e-waste sites are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer and respiratory illnesses. “Burning e-waste releases fineparticles which can enter through skin pores and also can be inhaled which can trigger respiratory illnesses like asthma. The situation can also lead to developing associated skin conditions like allergic contact dermatitis and airborne contact dermatitis can also increase. Long exposure to the e-waste pollution can also increase the risk of skin cancer,” she explained. 

Besides, persistent exposure could involve multiple organs if the toxic elements make their way through the potable water. “Heavy metals from the e-waste eventually get dissolved into ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes. This water, when consumed by the general population, may cause serious health hazards. Infiltration by mercury and cadmium poses great risk to skin and digestive system,” the doctor said.
Piled up computer monitors, heaps of opened inverters and entangled wires are common sight at the e-waste market at the Old Seelampur. Meahwhile, workers in cramped spaces continue to hammer at electronic peripherals, and subsequently fling unneeded elements to a corner.  

A resident said that there also exists a hierarchy in this business. According to him, the bigwig dealers brings in e-waste to markets like Old Seelampur from all over the world. “Then comes in the recyclers who source the reusable material, and at the end of the line the kabadiwalas (scrap dealers) who earn by selling the remaining plastic, among other things,” he said. E-waste comes to Seelampur from countries like UAE, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, etc, he said. 

“In Seelampur, almost every family is directly or indirectly connected with the recycling of e-waste. If a kid is not good in education, then their parents send them as labourers in these markets,” said the local. 
Formalising the sector  Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group – a leading NGO that works in the sphere of environment and waste management – the three major issues related to e-waste, environment, hazard, health deterioration and child labour, can be addressed if the government pushes for formalising the sector.

“In practicality, it is very difficult to sensitise them (collectors and recyclers) to put health and environment above their livelihood. What governments can do is provide them with alternative sites and incentivise them,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, director, Chintan.

“These informal workers are very important to our economy. They are actually adding value to the e-waste that would have ended up at landfills through repairing, modifying and reselling them. They can be further trained with safe practices which will abolish child labour and with incentives, they could be inducted into a formal sector,” she said.

Seventeen-year-old Shahbaz Qureshi, studying in class XII, recently began recycling scrap mobile phones along with his peers. “I have just learned how to extract valuable items from a scrap mobile phones. If I were trained earlier at this age then I can earn good money in future from this market,” said Qureshi.

On why he opted for this profession only, he said, “If Seelampur were a computer hub then I would learn about computers. If we were a cricket academy then I would learn cricket. But since there is only e-waste recycling in Seelampur, I am learning it.” “Foreigners came to Old Seelmapur to see how we are managing the problem of e-waste. If we do not do this work then there will be a crisis of e-waste particles in the world,” Qureshi averred, while showing mobile phones components he had just recycled. 

Child labour
In 2021, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) also flagged the child labour involved in dismantling and segregating e-waste in Seelampur and other areas of the country in its fact-finding report. According to the body’s report, youngsters as young as eight and nine years old spent 12 hours each day at the Mustafabad trash market removing wires off televisions.

Children here were observed separating lithium from batteries in a store while another was observed sorting copper, iron, gold, silver, tin, titanium, palladium and other materials from e-waste (tubelights, laptops, and mobile phones), according to the report. Though the Commission recommended penalising those who employed the minors in this business, nothing has been changed after one year. 

According to the latest State of India’s Environment Report 2022, an analysis by the Centre for Science of India last year found most state pollution control boards lacked information and transparency around e-waste. Delhi, along with Andaman and Nicobar, Arunachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Daman and Diu, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Rajasthan are among states that have provided no information with regard to e-waste..

However, the state government has taken a step in a direction to address the mammoth issue. The Delhi government has already finalised a 20-acre plot in Narela as the city’s first e-waste park where waste generators and certified recyclers can operate under one roof, while two more such sites are under deliberation for the set-up.

A sector in dire need of attention

In the pursuit of separating lithium from batteries, recyclers and collectors at Delhi’s e-waste markets find varying quantities of copper, iron, gold, silver, tin, titanium, palladium and other precious materials. An unorganised sector still, e-waste can be propelled into a full-fledged industry

2.2lakh ton electronic waste generated in national capital every year

90% e-waste reaches landfills, informal recyclers

Informal recyclers/processing units exist for lack of organised system to deal with discarded electronics
Source: Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC)

Seelampur hub

57% of Delhi’s informal e-waste processing and handling units are in Seelampur

Informal units lack proper guidelines, precautions or norms

5,000 – total e-waste processing units in Delhi, as of 2018

Informal e-waste hubs: Mustafabad, Old Seelampur, and markets across Shahdara in North East Delhi

Dangerous ‘line of work’

Youngsters as young as 8 and 9 years old are illegally engaged in segregation/dismantle of e-waste

12 hours – average time spent per day by a child

NCPCR advocates penalising those employing minors in this business

One year on, nothing has been changed on the ground

Govt watchdogs in the dark

According to the latest State of India’s Environment Report 2022, most state pollution control boards lacked information and transparency around e-waste

Delhi, along with Andaman and Nicobar, Arunachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Daman and Diu, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Rajasthan: states that have provided no information with regard to e-waste

(Source: Centre for Science of India, 2021)

‘One small step’

City’s first e-waste park: coming up in a 20-acre plot in Narela  

Delhi govt will install waste generators, employ certified recyclers in this facility

Two more such facilities in the anvil

Capital’s e-waste markets, centered in North East Delhi, are thriving hubs for dismantling and segregating of electronic peripherals. Amit Pandey and Ashish Srivastava throw light on the vices of this unorganised sector, and how government attention can aid safe practices and abolish child labour and poverty 

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