India the digital dumping ground
by Indrajit Basu, Asia Times Online (Hong Kong)
2 August 2006 (Kolkata) –
Even as the United States pushes India to relax its restrictions on importing used computers and parts, shiploads of illegally imported equipment from the US and other developed countries are swamping India, contributing to a growing "e-waste" problem.
India and the United States are engaged in tough negotiations over import of second-hand computers and parts, with the US insisting that India allow more liberal importation of "pre-used" hardware, according to reports. India prefers to stick to its norm of importing hardware that has at least 80% residual life left.
"Exact hard numbers are hard to come by, but close to 40,000 tons of used electronic equipment find their way to India every month, unnoticed, much of which are getting routed to illegal electronics dump grounds every month," said Ravi Agarwal, director of the non-profit environmental group Toxics Link. The equipment is then incinerated, contaminating the environment with toxic organic compounds and metals, he said.
"Computers and electronic equipment which are discarded in the West have started arriving in India and the entire South Asian market in huge quantities and, following China's ban on imported electronic waste last year, India has emerged as the largest dumping ground of e-waste for the developed world," he said.
It isn't difficult to gauge the increasing magnitude of the electronic-waste problem threatening India. Visit the numerous lanes off the central part of Bangalore or Mandoli, an industrial estate on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, home to some illegal scrapyards.
Small groups of boys, young women and even men tear apart personal computers, monitors and other electronic hardware with their bare hands, sifting through the components. The reusable parts are segregated, and the rest sent for extraction - glass from the cathode-ray tubes and various types of metals, including traces of gold and silver.
The remaining waste is broken down and incinerated in huge cauldrons filled with acids that continuously spew out foul smoke. Whatever can't be incinerated is broken down with chisels and hammers and dumped into the nearest sewer or garbage bins, from where it goes to the landfills. And for doing the dirty work, adult laborers are paid at the most US$2 a day.
Environmental organizations say Delhi's "e-scrap" yards alone employ more than 15,000 laborers who handle 12,000 tons of e-waste a year, while close to 100% of total e-waste-processing activity takes place in unorganized recycling and back-yard scrap-trading outfits.
"Electronic hardware contains toxic metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium and hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants, which can cause grave damage to humans," said Greenpeace India official Vinuta Gopal, who along with her organization is fighting to control the waste menace in the country.
Yet illegal e-waste processing continues undeterred because disposal of obsolete electronic equipment has become a lucrative business in India.
"Unlike the developed countries, there are no set norms for handling of electronic waste, and secondly cheap labor not only makes disposal cost-effective and profitable for local traders but also encourages the developed countries to push electronic wastes to the countries like India," Agarwal said.
There's big money in it. For instance, Toxic Links has calculated that it costs about $20 to recycle a personal computer (PC) in the United States, whereas unscrupulous Indian importers pay up to $15 each for them.
"That means a net gain of $35 for a US recycler," Agarwal said, adding that by extracting the usable parts and then dumping it on the back-yard scrap-trading outfits, an importer can generate about $10 in revenue. "Clearly, it's a win-win for both."
The two largest nations exporting their e-wastes are the United States and Britain. According to a recent British Environmental Protection Agency report, Britain shipped out 25,000 tons of e-waste to South Asia last year.
The United States bought a staggering $125 billion worth of electronic goods in 2005, and reportedly for every PC the country bought, one was discarded. Industry sources say in 2005 the US recycled about $2 billion worth of electronic equipment, which may be just 20% of the e-waste it generated, much of which found its way to India, China, Southeast Asia and Africa. Electronic hardware discarded globally has skyrocketed, with 20 million to 50 million tons generated every year, Greenpeace says.
Nevertheless, the rich countries alone cannot be blamed, environmentalists say.
"Asia alone is estimated to be generating 12 million tons of e-waste a year, while India has started generating a lot of e-waste too," Gopal said. "We have estimated that close to 40% of the e-waste handled in India is generated locally. But India's biggest problem is that there is no specific law to prevent import of e-waste. There is just a court order that bans import of all hazardous waste."
Also, the government has not formulated a clear definition of what could be termed electronic waste.
"I can cite many instances where unscrupulous importers fill in a container with electronic scrap and then top it up with metal scrap to avoid the customs' surveillance," said Amit Jain, India-based head of IRG Systems, which calls itself a solution provider for energy and environmental industries. "Moreover, the Indian Customs Department, being a pure revenue-generating outfit, lacks the wherewithal to scrutinize each imported container, and they are not bothered either."
Still, the US delegation currently discussing the import of used PCs argues that India may eventually lose out by mixing up its inability to handle domestic e-waste problems with the issue of importing used computers.
After all, India has set a lofty target of wiring its rural population of 750 million with computers and Internet by 2010, for which the country needs cheap hardware. And already, say industry sources, PCs that local assemblers churn out from the parts of imported electronic hardware and sell for $150 each have emerged as the cheapest alternative for owning a piece of information technology for about 40% of India's first-time computer users.
Indrajit Basu is a Kolkata-based journalist.
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