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San Jose Mercury News

Sun, Dec. 28, 2003 

 

E-waste Ignored in India

 

By KARL SCHOENBERGER

Mercury News

 

NEW DELHI, India - Atul Maheshwari has something to hide. He will not permit photographs inside the high-walled courtyard of his mud-brick factory, where a half-dozen workers scurry about dipping circuit boards in and out of blue plastic drums filled with acid, stripping the boards of their last remnants of copper and traces of silver.

 

None of the workers wears a mask to ward off noxious fumes, and only one has thin yellow gloves to protect his skin from the toxic brew. When the acid is depleted, the men dump it into the open sewer lining a rutted dirt side-road in the Mandoli industrial area, a collection of small, decaying factories in the northeastern corner of India's capital.

 

Maheshwari says he ignores city regulations and burns the bare plastic boards in the open air, just like the 10 rival scrap yards doing the same work in the area. He boasts of procuring his scrap from North America, South Africa and Hong Kong, which he processes along with computer waste generated throughout India.

 

``If your country keeps sending us the material, our business will be good,'' he said, speaking through an interpreter.

 

As India emerges as a technology powerhouse, poverty, cheap labor and rampant corruption make it a prime market for the dumping and burning of unregulated electronic waste, environmental activists say. And Maheshwari's business is a stark example of this growing global industry that begins as trash in Silicon Valley and throughout the developed world and ends in India, China, the Philippines and other developing countries.

 

Fed largely by the discards of U.S. consumers and businesses, this burgeoning traffic in hazardous electronic waste is attracting growing scrutiny because of the pollution it causes and the danger it poses to unskilled workers overseas.

Industry protected.

 

``The small scrap yards and the back-alley recycling in Delhi are the tip of the iceberg,'' warned Ravi Agarwal, director of the non-profit watchdog Toxics Link Delhi.

 

``There's a framework to deal with industrial waste in India, but not for computer waste. It's so complicated because there are multiple components, with varying degrees of toxicity. And the IT industry is a holy cow in this country. You can't touch it.''

 

The Indian government, however, maintains that e-waste is not brought into the country, pointing to the Indian Supreme Court's 1997 ban on e-waste imports. Officials also downplay the problem of recycling electronic trash produced at home.

 

``E-waste as such is not such a severe problem in our country, because the waste goes into a secondary market. We are not dumping anything,'' said B. Sengupta, a senior official at the Environment Ministry's Pollution Control Board in New Delhi. ``Maybe there will be a problem in five years, but not now.''

 

Agarwal's group sees it differently.

 

His group has investigated large-scale e-waste operations in the port cities of Chennai (formerly Madras) in Tamil Nadu to the south, and Ahmedabad in the northwestern state of Gujarat. Posing as domestic scrap buyers, they have learned from international brokers that despite the import ban, scrap dealers can easily fill shipping containers with e-waste and bring them ashore if they are identified as used computer parts.

 

Because of the underground nature of India's e-waste business, statistics are scarce. But Toxics Link Delhi cites reports indicating that perhaps 30 tons of computer waste is imported every month at Ahmedabad alone, much of it contaminated by toxic lead, mercury and cadmium.

 

``What you see are migrant workers from rural areas, way down in the caste system, doing the dirty work, sleeping and working in the scrap yards,'' said Agarwal, whose group issued a report in February, ``Scrapping the High Tech Myth: Computer Waste in India.''

 

Exporting U.S. waste

India's e-waste problem serves as a reminder that the United States -- the world's largest consumer of electronic goods -- is not party to an international accord that bans the shipment of hazardous electronic trash from wealthy countries to poor countries. An estimated 315 million computers will have become obsolete in the United States between 1997 and 2004, and that number is likely to grow at a fast clip, taxing domestic recycling capacity and making exports the cheapest, easiest solution.

 

Toxics Link Delhi and other groups have fought a lonely crusade in South Asia.

India's environmental priorities are focused on the basic problems of foul air, poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water. New Delhi authorities, for example, shut down polluting industries within the city limits and cleaned up the air dramatically in the past five years by forcing taxis and small commercial vehicles to switch from diesel fuel to liquid natural gas.

 

But 70 percent of Indians still don't have latrines. Chemicals from factories and fertilizers from fields have added to the contamination of the water supply already soiled by untreated human waste. Junked computers might seem like a minor issue in a country that must deal with profound rural poverty and uncontrolled population growth.

 

E-waste recyclers in New Delhi have felt pressure to clean up their act, but the scale of the recycling is small and it's relatively easy to conceal from authorities.

 

A plume of dark smoke led the Mercury News to a small brick compound in the Mandoli industrial area, not far from Maheshwari's acid-bath operation. Here, PVC-coated wires were being burned to salvage copper. Across the city, in the poor Muslim neighborhoods of Silampur and Turkmangate, workers hacked apart computers and cathode ray tubes by hand.

 

The Indian government is in denial about the problem of imported e-waste, Agarwal said. It is also neglecting to develop a policy to handle the inevitable flood of domestic scrap as computer consumption -- and the trashing of obsolete PCs -- rises along with the technological sophistication of India's growing middle class.

 

Sengupta, the environmental official, rejected the findings of Agarwal's group.

``I don't think it's true,'' he said. ``There was an investigation and we found that no e-waste was coming to this country. The report is not correct.''

 

He declined to comment on the wire-burning and the acid-bath treatment of circuit boards that the Mercury News observed in Mandoli.

 

Whether it's a problem for the authorities or not, the low-end trade in e-waste remains relatively lucrative in the underbelly of India's economy, where nearly 60 percent of adults are illiterate and 35 percent of the population lives on an income of less than $1 a day, according to the United Nations Development Program.

 

Medhi Hasan, who was plucking chips and transistors from some relatively ancient motherboards outside his tiny shop on a cramped alley in the Silampur neighborhood, is a former fruit seller who said he switched to e-waste recycling to improve his lot. He said he acquires his stock of computer scrap from local banks, companies and embassies. Hasan and his two employees recycle 200 to 300 computers a month, but he barely makes a profit.

 

``I'm not worried about any toxins or hazardous waste,'' he said. ``I don't burn any wires and we use hammers to strip the circuit boards and stopped melting the lead solder over a stove.''

 

Maheshwari said he got into the business of e-waste recycling seven years ago when he saw how much money he could make. Dressed as a successful businessman in dress slacks and a spotless white shirt, he declined to say what he did for a living before this, or exactly how much money he makes in a month.

 

By the time the circuit boards reach his yard, they are already stripped of semiconductor chips -- the secondhand components that can be found for resale in tiny three-worker shops around the city.

 

Maheshwari said he does not make much profit unless he processes large volumes of scrap, which is why he is turning more and more directly to international brokers to get his supply by the container-load.

 

Maheshwari chafed at questions about his business. He then escorted the visiting journalists through the hatch door on the rusted steel gate of his scrap yard and stalked away.

 

The Mandoli industrial zone adjoins a residential area, where barefoot children trudged home in brown school uniforms past a row of shops and an open-air restaurant on one side of the road and factories on the other side. Main Street was a dirt road cluttered by ox carts and pedicabs. One acid-bath worker from Maheshwari's yard, 25-year-old Raj Bhadur, sat on a stool eating a lunch of vegetable curry and fried bread.

 

Bhadur, a native of a farm village across the city border in Uttar Pradesh state, said he had been doing the e-waste work for three years, and that the pay is good compared to what he could make doing other kinds of labor. He earns about 3,000 rupees ($66) a month, working six days a weeks in eight-hour shifts. He has had no symptoms of respiratory problems or skin irritations, he said shyly, surrounded by co-workers.

 

``There's a lot of water at the yard to wash up with,'' he said. ``I'm not worried about health problems.''

 

Dr. Sunil Aggaridal, a respiratory-disease specialist at nearby Gurutegbahldar Hospital in the Dilshad Garden area, said he had not seen any indication of unusual respiratory problems in the local population. He said children are most vulnerable, but he had no information about the people living near the Mandoli industrial zone or the burning of e-waste there.

 

That afternoon, the air was thick with acrid smoke coming from a compound about 50 yards from the residential area. There, not far from Maheshwari's factory, another scrap broker was burning coils of copper and aluminum wire on charcoal blocks. The crude furnace burns off the last remnants of the polyvinyl chloride insulation, a process that environmentalists say releases toxic levels of dioxin into the air.

 

An angry manager wasted no time in kicking out journalists. Outside, he declined to explain what was happening inside the small open yard.

 

Standing in the shade down the unpaved alleyway, however, Suphbal Singh, a 37-year-old truck driver, was more obliging. He had delivered the coils of wire to the compound and was waiting for the burning to be completed and the wires to cool so he could take the scrap to the next stage in the recycling processes.

 

Lung ailments

Singh said wire and cable burning has been going on at this spot for about 20 years, unmolested by authorities.

 

``The people working inside those yards have health problems -- lung problems,'' said Singh, who worked as a farmer in Uttar Pradesh until he bought his truck seven years ago. ``The burning is illegal but the police probably won't touch us, because the scrap dealer's association lobbies the government.''

 

But, with increasing pressure from city authorities to clean up pollution, the lobbying may not be strong enough to protect the most environmentally damaging practices.

 

``After the local election next year,'' Singh said, ``there's a possibility the government will shut this down.''

 

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