KOLKATA - Even as the United States pushes
India to relax its restrictions on importing used
computers and parts, shiploads of illegally
imported equipment from the US and other developed
countries are swamping India, contributing to a
growing "e-waste" problem.
India and the
United States are engaged in tough negotiations
over import of second-hand computers and parts,
with the US insisting that India allow more
liberal importation of "pre-used" hardware,
according to reports. India prefers to stick to
its norm of importing hardware that has at least
80% residual life left.
numbers are hard to come by, but close to 40,000
tons of used electronic equipment find their way
to India every month, unnoticed, much of which are
getting routed to illegal
electronics dump grounds
every month," said Ravi Agarwal, director of the
non-profit environmental group Toxics Link. The
equipment is then incinerated, contaminating the
environment with toxic organic compounds and
metals, he said.
"Computers and electronic
equipment which are discarded in the West have
started arriving in India and the entire South
Asian market in huge quantities and, following
China's ban on imported electronic waste last
year, India has emerged as the largest dumping
ground of e-waste for the developed world," he
It isn't difficult to gauge the
increasing magnitude of the electronic-waste
problem threatening India. Visit the numerous
lanes off the central part of Bangalore or
Mandoli, an industrial estate on the Delhi-Uttar
Pradesh border, home to some illegal scrapyards.
Small groups of boys, young women and even
men tear apart personal computers, monitors and
other electronic hardware with their bare hands,
sifting through the components. The reusable parts
are segregated, and the rest sent for extraction -
glass from the cathode-ray tubes and various types
of metals, including traces of gold and silver.
The remaining waste is broken down and
incinerated in huge cauldrons filled with acids
that continuously spew out foul smoke. Whatever
can't be incinerated is broken down with chisels
and hammers and dumped into the nearest sewer or
garbage bins, from where it goes to the landfills.
And for doing the dirty work, adult laborers are
paid at the most US$2 a day.
organizations say Delhi's "e-scrap" yards alone
employ more than 15,000 laborers who handle 12,000
tons of e-waste a year, while close to 100% of
total e-waste-processing activity takes place in
unorganized recycling and back-yard scrap-trading
"Electronic hardware contains
toxic metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and
beryllium and hazardous chemicals, such as
brominated flame retardants, which can cause grave
damage to humans," said Greenpeace India official
Vinuta Gopal, who along with her organization is
fighting to control the waste menace in the
Yet illegal e-waste processing
continues undeterred because disposal of obsolete
electronic equipment has become a lucrative
business in India.
"Unlike the developed
countries, there are no set norms for handling of
electronic waste, and secondly cheap labor not
only makes disposal cost-effective and profitable
for local traders but also encourages the
developed countries to push electronic wastes to
the countries like India," Agarwal said.
There's big money in it. For instance,
Toxic Links has calculated that it costs about $20
to recycle a personal computer (PC) in the United
States, whereas unscrupulous Indian importers pay
up to $15 each for them.
"That means a net
gain of $35 for a US recycler," Agarwal said,
adding that by extracting the usable parts and
then dumping it on the back-yard scrap-trading
outfits, an importer can generate about $10 in
revenue. "Clearly, it's a win-win for both."
The two largest nations exporting their
e-wastes are the United States and Britain.
According to a recent British Environmental
Protection Agency report, Britain shipped out
25,000 tons of e-waste to South Asia last year.
The United States bought a staggering $125
billion worth of electronic goods in 2005, and
reportedly for every PC the country bought, one
was discarded. Industry sources say in 2005 the US
recycled about $2 billion worth of electronic
equipment, which may be just 20% of the e-waste it
generated, much of which found its way to India,
China, Southeast Asia and Africa. Electronic
hardware discarded globally has skyrocketed, with
20 million to 50 million tons generated every
year, Greenpeace says.
rich countries alone cannot be blamed,
"Asia alone is
estimated to be generating 12 million tons of
e-waste a year, while India has started generating
a lot of e-waste too," Gopal said. "We have
estimated that close to 40% of the e-waste handled
in India is generated locally. But India's biggest
problem is that there is no specific law to
prevent import of e-waste. There is just a court
order that bans import of all hazardous waste."
Also, the government has not formulated a
clear definition of what could be termed
"I can cite many
instances where unscrupulous importers fill in a
container with electronic scrap and then top it up
with metal scrap to avoid the customs'
surveillance," said Amit Jain, India-based head of
IRG Systems, which calls itself a solution
provider for energy and environmental industries.
"Moreover, the Indian Customs Department, being a
pure revenue-generating outfit, lacks the
wherewithal to scrutinize each imported container,
and they are not bothered either."
the US delegation currently discussing the import
of used PCs argues that India may eventually lose
out by mixing up its inability to handle domestic
e-waste problems with the issue of importing used
After all, India has set a
lofty target of wiring its rural population of 750
million with computers and Internet by 2010, for
which the country needs cheap hardware. And
already, say industry sources, PCs that local
assemblers churn out from the parts of imported
electronic hardware and sell for $150 each have
emerged as the cheapest alternative for owning a
piece of information technology for about 40% of
India's first-time computer users.