By: Kamala Kelkar
Nineteen-year-old Mohammad Salman Mansoori has spent much of the last four years inside a tiny concrete room, hammering the plastic, copper and other pieces off chunks of electronic waste to separate what can be resold.
His workspace in Delhi, about 150 square feet, was piled up to the ceiling with white and brown satchels, each containing hard drives that had come in from all over the world.
Mansoori sat cross-legged on the floor, with three other boys — aged 12, 16 and 18 – giggling while they used hammers to break the cases and remove the discs and other components. Tiny screws and shards of copper were flying.
“These will be made into kitchen utensils,” Mansoori told Al Jazeera in Hindi, as he tossed a steel piece into a toppling pile. Mansoori, who makes a couple of dollars a day for stripping about 1,000 gadgets, says he and his young colleagues are concerned because their workload has been dwindling.
“We are getting less and less,” he said.
Delhi’s pollution control officials have for the last couple of years tried to clamp down on the dangerous and illegal trade of dismantling and reselling electronic waste within the capital.
They have licensed and promoted about 15 legitimate collection centres to intercept electronic waste and prevent it going to the informal sector. The government’s efforts are endangering the income of thousands of people like Mansoori who have no other means of livelihood.
Huge e-waste traffic
According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, Delhi’s well-established e-waste scrap yards are some of the largest in Asia. They are a source of income for as many as 150,000 people who receive as much as 30,000 tonnes of printers, computers and other electronics scrap from all over the world every year.
“It’s a good thing, what we’re doing. The e-waste traffic in Delhi has been growing and it’s not safe. These centres must take the waste out of the capital. They are only allowed to collect. They cannot dismantle or resell in the capital,” said the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) member secretary Sandeep Mishra.
DPCC’s strategy has created competition for informal scrap dealers or “kabadi wallahs,” as they are popularly known. The dealers say that people selling e-waste now ask for certificates, especially bigger businesses and schools because of the e-waste campaign, so the informal trade is taking a hit.
“I’ve considered another business but what would I do? This is all I know,” Mohammed Jameel, who dismantles printers and bigger chunks of e-waste a few doors down from Mansoori, told Al Jazeera in Hindi.
But even though the campaign is making a dent, the government-set up centres are not effective. Some collectors ignore the rules. They use the certificate to collect e-waste, but then turn around and sell it to the same informal sector that they were meant to discourage.
Mohammad Sabir has worked in the e-waste junkyard, like Mansoori and Jameel, but for 27 years. He has obtained a collection license with the help of the German non-profit Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) that works with the Indian government on waste issues.
“I thought it would be good for business and for my health…but it’s not so,” Sabir told Al Jazeera in Hindi.
Sabir, who supports a family of 10, said he appreciates the training and administrative support from the non-profit GIZ. But the rules are too stiff and expensive to follow. In order to obtain the permit he had to rent a warehouse. And instead of dismantling the e-waste himself in Delhi, now he is expected to pay people to reprocess it outside the state.
Because of costs, he said he and many other collection centres end up selling the e-waste to the same kabadi wallahs, and in the process losing money.
“I’ve been trying to follow the rules. It’s like a bone in your throat. You can’t spit it out and you can’t swallow it,” Sabir told Al Jazeera.
Other dealers in the junkyard also said they get some of their waste from the official collection centres.
GIZ still supports legitimising the informal sector, but a junior technical expert working with the non-profit organisation says it will take a lot more effort to make it effective.
“You can’t just ignore the informal sector. You have to enable it,” Junior Technical Expert Jayant Narayan told Al Jazeera. “They handle a lot of the world’s e-waste…and they’re just going to keep doing it.”
He suggested providing warehouses for collectors so they do not have to pay additional rent costs, legalising dismantling through more permits and inspecting collection centres.
Like many arms of the Delhi government, Mishra says DPCC resources are stretched thin. The committee has less than 30 people to perform inspections and enforce a long list of issues, from making sure thousands of businesses have emission permits to enforcing hazardous waste rules for hospitals.
Mishra said enforcement is always difficult and that the committee does not make laws to protect informal economies; it makes laws to prevent health hazards and protect the environment.
“You cannot stop regulating these things because it might affect (the informal sector’s) economy. As an implementer we have to look at new ways of regulating what is expected of us,” he said.
He has met officials from other state departments and discussed ways to bolster their efforts, including a possible tax on any e-waste that comes in or banning it from entering the state entirely.
“It’s not a problem that can be fixed overnight,” he said. “These things take time.”