India's poor tackle toxic e-waste


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May 24, 2005
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While businesses see Bangalore as a technology hub, environmentalists claim India is the world's dumping ground for old computers. And this is threatening the health of some of the country's most vulnerable people.

Most of our discarded computers will end up in a huge pile. But India's pile of past-it PCs is larger than most.

This year the country will import more than 4.5 million new computers, plus many second-hand ones with shorter lifespans. It is known as electronic or e-waste.

The trickle down from the computer hardware boom has reached those surviving on less than a dollar a day, with potentially disastrous consequences.

In the cities, India's poor scrape a living by breaking down PCs and monitors. They boil, crush or burn parts in order to extract valuable materials like gold or platinum.

But what they do not realise is that the toxic chemicals inside like cadmium and lead can pose serious health risks.

'Brain drain'

Much of the lead poisoning in the country was blamed on the city's notorious traffic fumes.

In 2000, unleaded fuels took over but while the air cleared, toxic levels remain disturbingly high.

India's hospitals are starting to see patients with 10 times the expected level of lead in their blood.

Lead affects the nervous system and intelligence. Dr Thuppil Venkatesh, director of the National Centre for Lead Poisoning and the country's leading expert, says the dumping and unsupervised recycling of e-waste is literally leading to a brain drain.

"There should not be any lead in our blood because lead has no biological function. You and I, living in a society like this, will have about 8-10 micrograms per decilitre. Even at a level of 5 micrograms per decilitre lead can bring about DNA aberrations," he said.

"And in children, anything around 10 micrograms per decilitre can bring down the IQ.

"Half of children in a city like Bangalore already have blood lead levels at about 10 micrograms per decilitre, which has resulted in a reduction in their intelligence quotient. We are seeing more and more cases now because more and more electronic waste is being handled by our people."

Call for action

Greenpeace wants India's largest technology firms to take more responsibility for the hardware they sell once it becomes obsolete.

These multi-national companies are dumping these electronic goods in the name of charity work, which is completely illegal
Ramapati Kumar, Greenpeace

Tougher rules on electronic waste do exist in other parts of the world. But the pressure group fears India is seen as a soft touch, and that its generous import policies on second-hand computers, aimed at helping charities and schools, is being abused.

"These multi-national companies are dumping these electronic goods in the name of charity work," said Ramapati Kumar, a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace.

"They have to take the way forward to take out these chemicals from their products and make them clean products and to have a safer policy of not illegally dumping in the country.

"They want to transfer their responsibility from the well developed northern countries to southern countries where the facilities are not available. There are no standard recycling practices and things like that.

Because of that, the whole environment and human health has been affected."


Each district's Pollution Control Board is responsible for policing e-waste.
Karnataka, which covers Bangalore, has issued just one enforcement order relating to electronic waste.

But K M Shivakumar, the secretary and chairman of Karnataka's Pollution Control Board, believes this is not enough. He needs more investigative officers and the law to be clarified.

"E-waste is not defined in the law," he said. "E-waste becomes hazardous waste, and is covered under the hazardous waste rules, only after the hazardous waste contained in these computers like the motherboard etc is taken out.

"So there is this difficulty. Whether we call it a loophole or difficulty is a question of opinion."

It is late in the day, but not too late, according to Shetty Sreenath, the director of Ash Recyclers, one of just two authorised recycling plants in Bangalore. Both were given final approval just two months ago.

You could really use this opportunity and make money out of it and give employment to the poor
Shetty Sreenath, Ash Recyclers

At Ash Recyclers the hazardous metals are safely extracted at a special plant, and everything else - down to the keys - is recycled.

"Somebody is going to give you money and say: 'this is waste, take it away'. You could really use this opportunity and make money out of it and give employment to the poor people who are without jobs here," said Mr Sreenath.

"That is what you can see in my factory. I have given jobs to the underprivileged Muslim community."

There are plans for a large industrial recycling plant to open in 2007. Until then, the women at Ash Recycling help form the backbone of Bangalore's e-waste clean up.

The growth of India's technology industry shows few signs of slowing, as do the piles of waste it creates.

Government policies to stop dumping and encourage recycling will have to work quickly if India is to avoid leaving an unwanted legacy.

By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click Online

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2005/10/14 17:20:06 GMT