In the streets of Mustafabad in Northeast Delhi, 14-year-old Shamim calls himself a reverse engineer. He dismantles dead computers, air conditions, and compressors peeling the wires day in and day out, knowing little about the toxins present in the hardware of these dead machines. These toxins are responsible for destroying his life slowly.
"The toxins released in the process of separating these metals can damage kidneys, brain and lungs of those exposed to it. Skin diseases, hormonal imbalances, asthma and even cancer are caused by these toxins. These chemicals are now a part of their soil and water as well due to landfilling of e-waste," says Dr Vijay Arora, a private doctor and former CMO Safdarjung hospital.
Without any protective gear, Shamim and his friend burn circuit boards and cables to extract precious metals like platinum, gold, lead, and copper in dingy and poorly ventilated rooms, while inhaling the slow poison. He earns a living by removing rubber covers of the wires after burning them. He is among the hundreds of workers decomposing e-waste in the lanes of Mustafabad. The shop he works in is filled with discarded wires and dead computers. The streets where these shops are located are host to heaps of discarded computer monitors, phones, motherboards, cathode ray tubes, air conditioners, refrigerators, and scraps of keyboards. And these streets have hundreds of Shamim's who do the job of dismantling e-waste without proper protective measures. ASSOCHAM reveals in a report that India generates approx 1.7 to three million tonnes of e-waste annually and nearly 90 per cent of it is processed in the informal sector. Meanwhile, despite a ban on importing of e-waste, an additional thousand tonnes makes its way in the country through illegal means, thanks to the lax regulations.
For last one decade, the amount of e-waste has multiplied massively owing to the updated and easy availability of technology which has further increased individual dependence on technology. In the coming years, technology is going to have more influence on our daily lives, so consequently, there will be an increased amount of e-waste in the near future. Even with the push to a digital economy, e-waste generation would multiply enormously. According to the government reports, there were only 149 registered e-waste recyclers with the capacity of 4,61,059 metric tonne per annum in October 2015.
Existing e-waste management rules have been revised and new rules have come into force on October 1, 2016, and as per these revised norms, a consumer has to ensure e-waste generated by then is channelized through collection centres or dealers of authorised producer or dismantler or recycler. Under this law, a producer has to ensure collection of discarded products and their proper channelisation to an authorised recycler. Studies carried out by an NGO Toxic link and experts state that presence of heavy metals in the soil has been found in Mustafabad, Seelampur, Mandoli and Loni areas of Delhi and connecting border to Northeast Delhi, which in turn attributes to the activities related to e-waste carried out in the areas. The water in the stream of Mustafabad, Chandbag and Seelampur locality is black with a terrible acrid smell. Recycling e-waste leaves many toxic elements such as lead, mercury, cadmium, selenium and arsenic behind. Workers in these illegal units are unaware of the health hazards of working in the unit since they prefer a continuous outflow of work in hope for a better remuneration. "Workers are not aware of the operational hazards of working in these units," said Ashish Singh, an NGO researcher.
Not even a single e-waste recycling unit has the required certificate from the Delhi Pollution Control Board. On enquiry related to this, a recycler unit owner, Shajju Malik, was shocked to know about the certificate and said only MCD's people come to check. "We always managed to have good relations with the government officials," said another scrap dealer. Workers mostly come from UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, in their early age for a monthly salary of Rs 8000 – 10,000 while some also work on a daily basis for Rs 300.
But young uneducated youths like Shamim are risking their lives for the petty livelihood of e-waste management. They have no social protection or health care facilities. In fact, there is no information as to how many labourers are employed in this informal sector of e-waste disposal across the country.
There is certainly a better way to dispose of e-waste, instead of pushing our youngsters, who stake their lives in bringing out useful materials from scrap.