Friday, January 14, 2011

Where Computers Go to Die

A locality in East Delhi is the largest electronic scrap market in the country. Photojournalist Garima Jain travels through the bylanes of Seelampur into a surreal, post-apocalyptic world

THE TRUCKS are coming in honking and rattling with old computers, kids are playing gali cricket with computer monitors as wickets, women are boiling pots full of computer parts, children sitting on piles of keyboards are watching a Bollywood film. The streets are filled with entangled wires, destroyed computers, keyboards and cell phones. A scene from a futuristic dystopia? This is the hidden place where people wake up every morning to sort through the electronic trash of the world.
Approximately 15 km from the centre of Delhi lies a small settlement called Seelampur, reputedly the largest electronics dismantling-recycling-selling market in the country. Residents work every day to extract gold and copper from circuit boards. Some extract metals independently, some work with big traders — most earn about Rs. 200 per day.
E-waste also includes televisions, DVD players and washing machines — most have toxic substances like lead, cadmium and mercury. This detritus of the e-age is growing rapidly given the fast rate of obsolescence of electronic equipment. Companies cunningly plan newer products for bigger profits. But what happens to the discarded stuff? The US says putting them in landfills is expensive and chemical seepage into the ground is an environmental hazard.
A cheaper alternative is to ship the stuff to developing regions like India, China and Africa where environmental laws are lax and labour is cheap. Toxics Link, a Delhi-based NGO, estimates that India generates about 4 lakh tonnes of electronic waste annually and illegally imports 50,000 tonnes from the US, Europe, South Korea, Australia, among others. Ninety percent of e-waste is recycled in the informal sector, in the bylanes of cities and towns.
Walk the streets here through dark passages, then down steps leading to godowns full of dismantled circuit boards strewn around. Computer parts sit stacked in haphazard mountain heaps. Go closer and you see little hands and feet rifling through the scrap piles. They are ripping the keyboards apart, hunting for precious metal slivers. These teens work 10 hours a day in these underground vaults. Praveen, 15, says, “Why should we go to school when we can make up to Rs. 200 every day by segregating copper from plastic using screwdrivers?”
Most trucks arrive at night from all corners of the country, with a majority from Mumbai’s seaport. Says Ala Dia, a tempo driver, “Transport companies earn 5 per kg. Each truck can ferry about 10 tonnes of waste in one trip.” Dia transports 30 to 40 tonnes of motherboards from Seelampur to Moradabad daily, where copper is salvaged from printed circuit boards with a brew of nitric acid, a toxic chemical that releases copper as well as cancer-causing lead and mercury.
‘My kids are naked ghosts in this pile of trash,’ says Reshma, a scrap worker and mother of two

Electronic scrap dealer Rizwan, 20, parrots Seelampur’s party line when he says, “We only segregate the waste here. Then it is transported to jungles near Lucknow to be burnt so that the metal can be extracted. The smoke is hazardous so we don’t do it here.” But look around in Seelampur and you see heaps of motherboards burning steadily.
RESHMA, MOTHER OF TWO, segregates the copper from the dust. “My kids are naked ghosts in this pile of trash,” she says. She’s been doing this for the past 12 years. She came to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh 30 years ago. She earns Rs. 60 per day; her family’s house rent is Rs. 2,000 a month. She says she has no other work options even as the cost of living rises.
Attero Recycling is the only company licensed to import e-waste into India. Centre for Science and Environment investigations revealed Attero reselling e-waste instead of recycling it. When asked about these findings, Dr Saroj, director, Ministry of Environment and Forests, refused to recognise that imported waste is being resold; she claims only Indian-origin e-waste is getting “refurbished” and denies knowledge of Seelampur’s activities, pointing to the Central Pollution Control Board as the monitoring body. Vinod Babu, senior environment engineer at the Central Pollution Control Board, says, “We believe there is no burning of motherboards in Seelampur.” He later adds absurdly, “It is happening in Moradabad. We have not done our investigations there, you know. It’s a very hostile area for government officials. We are aware of the hazardous illegal activities in the unorganised e-waste sector, but we haven’t prosecuted anyone because that’s the responsibility of the state pollution board.” And thus the buck passes to hover in mid-air.
Masterji, an electronic scrap specialist in Seelampur, is desperate for more work and asks if we can help him get business with Nokia’s “huge warehouse” for scrap that is sold for recycling. “The telephone exchange in Varanasi also has huge amounts of electronic scrap,” he smiles. “I’d like to get the tender for it.”

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