JANUARY 11, 2021

How the Phone you chucked
is killing Seelampur

Discover how you contribute to India’s ever-growing
pollution and health problems

BEGIN THE STORY

This story is based on actual on-ground reporting.

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A white mini truck loaded with electronic waste collected from across the country has just arrived in Delhi…

THIS IS SEELAMPUR

A suburb in northeastern Delhi - and India’s largest electronic waste (e-waste) market.

Nearly 82% of the e-waste generated in India consists of personal devices - which include computers, smartphones, television units and mobile telephony devices - most of which finds its way to Seelampur.

More than 30,000 men, women and children work in Seelampur each day, breaking down and separating devices with crude tools, and sorting them and washing them in acid baths to extract valuable minerals like Gold and Copper.

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This is Aman, a 15-year-old boy living in Seelampur with his father, mother and siblings.

Aman’s father runs a dismantling “unit” in his one storey brick and mortar house in Seelampur. Children like Aman start early in their childhood—many times skipping school altogether—and join their family members to break apart electronic devices and get at anything that is valuable.

Aman will begin his day in the workshop by taking apart the mobile phone handsets using crude tools, mostly hacked together at the shop.

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Diseases or injuries such as a slashed palm or an acid splash are common in Seelampur and similar e-waste hubs across India where women, children and men work under hazardous conditions.

Now that Aman has broken apart that dead mobile phone you threw away, he will heat or blow-torch the pieces to extract components. Aman knows the parts by name-- IC, speaker, antenna, screen, battery.

Explosions and fires are common in Seelampur, where most people in such tasks work without any safety equipment.

Aman now goes to the terrace of his house, where the large drums used for acid baths are kept.

He will now dunk the components that he has separated in these toxic acid baths containing a mix of chemicals like hydrogen peroxide, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid to extract precious metals such as Copper and Gold.

Lungs damaged by toxic fumes, acid burns and skin ailments are some of the most common health problems reported by Seelampur’s people.

Aman is now done with breaking down the gadgets. He finds there’s a bunch of waste/ non-valuable material left from the process which he now has to dispose of.

After a long day's work, in such conditions, how much money do you think women, children and men working in Seelampur earn daily?

Women, children and men work under hazardous conditions in Seelampur and similar e-waste hubs across India, earning wages as low as 200-500 rupees a day.

The parts that don’t hold much value end up in a landfill or a dump pile in and around the area.

Harmful chemicals such as Lead and Mercury, if not disposed of carefully, can leach into groundwater and contaminate the environment.

Most of the harmful chemicals used in manual recycling are poured down drains that flow into Seelampur’s waterways and canals. The area is situated within the Shahdara basin in Delhi which lies below the high flood level of the Yamuna; which means during floods the polluted water can often reach the main river.

Without proper disposal methods, these chemicals and toxins contaminate drinking water and irrigation sources downstream; eventually ending up in our systems via the water we drink and the food we eat.

Seelampur has many Amans.

India has many Seelampurs.

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 highest generator of e-waste globally in 2016, to the third highest in 2019, behind China and the U.S.

 

The Times of India has partnered with Factor Daily, now a non-profit venture, to co-publish and collaborate in doing in-depth and investigative articles in a mobile-friendly format. This is first in the series.

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