India’s insatiable appetite for new smartphones, making it the world’s second largest phone market in the world, and its digital revolution, are contributing to a disturbing rise in the country’s e-waste mountain. Just last year, in 2019, India became the world’s third largest producer of e-waste, behind China and the U.S.
Inside the country’s over 280 million phone sales annually and nearly $200 billion IT industry, a parallel and informal economy employing millions of men, women and children, continues to dismantle the discarded phones and other electronic items, hunting for precious metals. Hundreds of thousands of men, teenaged boys and women are employed in India’s unorganised e-waste recycling sector, hunting for precious metals such as lead, copper, aluminium, brass, silver and even gold from piles of motherboards, circuit boards, computer server cards.
At FactorDaily, we started tracking India’s e-waste conundrum in early 2016 with the story titled “This is Seelampur: India’s digital underbelly where your phones go to die”. Since then, India has risen from being the fifth biggest producer of e-waste in 2016, to the third largest in 2019.
As we reported in the story, Seelampur is not the only place in the country where generations of workers have been taking electronics apart. Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh; Loni, Mundka and Mandoli on the outskirts of Delhi; Kolkata and its suburbs in West Bengal; and Perungudi, Ambattur and Guindy in Chennai district are among hundreds of poorly regulated hubs that deal with over three million tonnes of e-waste annually.
Behind these numbers, are stories of deep societal troubles and irreparable health hazards for a generation of people employed in India’s informal e-waste recycling sector.
According to a study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, constant exposure to e-waste can have severe effects on the body including improper thyroid function, decreased lung function, adverse neonatal outcomes like -spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, premature births- changes in temperament and behaviour, and cellular damage.
To be sure, India’s is also ahead among its South East Asian peers when it comes to having a comprehensive regulation in place for managing e-waste. In 2011, India put in place laws to manage e-waste and these laws have been evolving since then to include better ways to regulate and manage e-waste generators and handlers. These laws mandate that only authorised dismantlers and recyclers handle e-waste in the country and also put the responsibility of managing e-waste onto device manufacturers.
So what do we plan to achieve with this story project over the next few years?
Starting with this interactive story “The dark side of India’s digital underbelly”, and an article about “planned obsolescence” by Toxicslink’s Priti Mahesh, we are going to commit ourselves to making sense of all the building blocks contributing to the country’s e-waste management. These include manufacturers, recyclers, consumers and organisations working towards improving the quality of life for those involved in the informal sector.
We will also put a spotlight on the crusaders such as Pranshu Singhal of Karo Sambhav and many others who have committed themselves to the cause of making India a shining example of good e-waste management.
Overall, we aim to create a deeper understanding of the country’s rising e-waste pile, and raise public consciousness about use of electronic items.
So, what can you do, dear readers, to help solve this problem?
What devices you buy and how often are decisions that you alone need to think about, and we aren’t judging you for the same. It all comes down to managing the afterlife of your electronic items more responsibly. Here are the ways in which you can help manage e-waste responsibly:
Make a list of any electronic or electrical devices that you would like to dispose of.
Sort them into functioning or dead devices by checking if they work or have irreparable damage.
Delete all personal information from the devices.
Functioning devices can be donated to those in need or exchanged during a new electronic purchase
Alternatively, collect and send all devices to your nearest authorized recycling center
Remember, never sell or give your devices to a scrap dealer