Fifteen-year-old Masood, who loiters in the streets of Mustafabad in east Delhi on days when he is not working, jocularly calls himself a reverse engineer. His job is to dismantle computers. He does many every day to earn his wages, knowing little about how lethal toxics present in the hardware of computers will kill him slowly.
Working in poorly ventilated enclosures without any protective gears, Masood and his friends burn circuit boards, cables to extract metals like gold, copper, lead, platinum, exposing themselves in the process to dangerous and slow-poisoning chemicals. Another popular method is to soak circuit boards and cables in chemical poisons like concentrated sulphuric acid, caustic soda, mercury and arsenic, releasing toxins such as dioxins, heavy metals, lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated flame retardants. These toxins can permanently damage their kidneys, brain and lungs, disrupt hormonal functions and can lead to asthma, skin diseases and even cancer. Residues and effluents are released into open drains or nearby vacant land leading to water and soil contamination. A single mobile phone battery is capable of polluting 600 cubic metres of water. Groundwater is highly endangered by leaching of lead, a result of land filling of e-waste. Brominated flame retardants, present in the printed wiring board and housings of electronic products are dangerous for health and the environment.
According to the latest annual report of the Union ministry of environment and forest (MoEF), by the end of 2012, India would have generated a whopping eight lakh tonnes of e-waste - up eight times in the past seven years. Environmentalists point out that an additional 50,000 tonnes is imported from developed countries despite a ban.
Mumbai tops the list of 10 most e-waste generating cities, followed by Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Pune, Surat and Nagpur. A state-wise break up shows that of the total e-waste generated in the country, 70% comes from 10 states — Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, Delhi, Karnataka, MP and Punjab. However, there is no data about the number of workers involved in the e-waste disposal in India.
As a step in the right direction, the MoEF plans to enforce the e-waste management and handling rules from May1, 2012. As per the new rules, the producers of electronic goods will be responsible to take back their products at the end of their working life and arrange for their safe disposal or recycling. Authorized collection center will be set up for the end users. “Making new rules and inclusion of extended producer responsibility is a positive step. But the new rules only talk about financing and organising a system for eco-friendly management of e-waste without any mechanism to check how this system would be put into practice," says Priti Mahesh of Toxics link NGO.