Global Electronic Waste Stream Poisons New Delhi

By Mike McPhate

NEW DELHI, India, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - At the end of a dirt alley in the slum neighborhood of Silampur, just east of the putrid waters of the Yamuna River in India’s capital, a doctor presses his stethoscope to the chest of a skinny, middle aged laborer. He says the man has shown “classic” problems – bleeding from the throat and shortness of breath. The number of such patients at his clinic has grown rapidly, says the doctor B.B. Wadhwa. “It’s because of the burning wires.”

The wires are part of a toxic tide of computer waste flowing from the United States and Europe into India’s poorest urban neighborhoods, where laborers pick it clean for reusable parts or minerals and then dump leftover poisonous ash and plastic residues in nearby landfills.

Whereas a bevy of high tech jobs from the west has launched India’s middle class – economic growth in the last quarter was a remarkable 10.4 percent – an even greater flow of obsolete computers into neighborhoods like Silampur is blackening the lungs of its poor, local doctors say.


Women in New Delhi working with waste (Two photos courtesy Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research)
While overall air pollution in New Delhi measured a drop in the last three years, a recent study by the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute in Kolkata found that residents are still twice as likely to suffer from lung ailments as their counterparts in the countryside. It found that nearly half of all non-smokers in the city now suffer from lung problems.

Traffic pollution remains the main source of the sickness. But at the city’s edges, where the computer recyclers operate, doctors say the enormous fumes produced by the industry should not be discounted.

The recyclers, many of them women and children, melt down the innards of old computers with dangerous acids, releasing a smoky stream of lead, dioxin and other pollutants. They are “bound to take in lead fumes,” says Kishore Wankhade of Toxics Link, a Delhi group that monitors the handling of electronic waste.

Wankhade says the laborers must choose “between poisons and livelihoods.” Per capita income in India is about US$2,600, and 25 percent of the population live below the poverty line. A trader can get about $50 for a disassembled computer, but the laborers themselves earn only about $1 per day.

The main medical clinic in Mandoli, a sparse neighborhood on the city’s east side and a major computer recycling area, has seen a sharp increase of patients with lung ailments, say doctors there.

Chief Medical Officer Priya T. Kumar says the hospital sees much younger patients than it did only a few years ago; they arrive with asthma, bronchitis, and chronic lung infections. Her doctors have also recently been diagnosing diabetes and high blood pressure – both of which have been linked to air pollution – among patients in their mid-20s, an unusually young age for the diseases, she added.

At another nearby clinic Dr. Rajesh Trehan, who says his lung patients have doubled in the last five years, blames the government. “They are not interested in fixing poor areas,” he says.

The Indian Supreme Court banned the import of hazardous waste in 1997. But fitful enforcement of the law seems to have only pushed the trade to the fringes of the city. Computer recycling is legal with a government permit, but none has ever been issued.

Still, a walk around Mandoli’s industrial area reveals evidence that the trade is booming. Giant piles of computer scrap clog the dirt lanes around more than a dozen high-walled brick buildings. Dark gray clouds rise like giant mushrooms from their clanking bowels, choking the air and shrouding the sun.

A knee-high pile of green circuit boards, picked clean of their metal, spills into a dirt lane from one of the building’s side doors. Inside, a circle of women, squatting amid piles of discarded computer parts and several big blue barrels, pull apart electrical plugs with their bare hands. A man in a clean, pressed shirt, noticing a snooping reporter, flashes a scowl before swinging the door shut.


Waste electronic parts await disposal.
Yes, says Narender Kumar, a police officer patrolling the area, the plants are illegally recycling computer parts. But that’s for the magistrate to deal with, he says.

A truck driver eating a plate of rice in a nearby waste-strewn plot says he transports about 2,400 kilograms of copper every day from the factories into the city. One kilogram of copper fetches about $3.

Salvaging copper from printed circuit boards, the plentiful thin plates on which computer chips are mounted, is one of the most common tasks in Mandoli. It is also the most polluting part of the recycling process, according to Toxics Link. Workers use a brew of nitric acid, a toxic substance that releases the copper from the printed circuit boards as well as lead and mercury, which are suspected carcinogens.

S.K. Gupta, a local printed circuit board manufacturer, says all of the plants in Mandoli use nitric acid. “Of course, it is cheaper,” he says, comparing it to cleaner alternatives that cost more. “This is why people use it.”

India’s computer recycling trade is relatively new.

It sprouted up with the country’s economic liberalization measures in the early 1990s, which included a shift to electronic governance. The short lifespan of computers, about three years, created an enormous tide of obsolete units - there are now about two million domestic computers, the vast majority from government and business, waiting to be recycled. A research agency, the International Resources Group, estimated that between 900 and 1,000 computers are recycled in Delhi each day.

But most of the waste, says Wankhade, comes from overseas.

India is bearing the brunt of a global problem. Electronic waste - cell phones, TVs, telephones, air conditioners, as well as computers - is one of the world’s fastest growing waste streams.

New Delhi gets most of its computer waste from the seaport in the western coastal city of Mumbai, where it is able to sneak past customs officials with misleading labels that identify the cargo as second-hand computers for resale.

The waste is then transferred by truck to a storage yard in Tughlakabad, a district on New Delhi’s southern edge. Scrap bidders divvy up the units and then sell their parts among various neighborhoods with particular recycling specialties throughout the city.

Toxics Link discovered a similar process taking place in India’s southern city of Chennai.


Waste computers piled up in San Jose, California as a protest of poor recycling practices for electronics. June 2001. (Photo courtesy Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition)
America is the main source of the foreign waste, say environmentalists here. A Carnegie Mellon University study estimated that in 2002 the United States sent about 10 million computer units to Asia for recycling, keeping only about three million on its own shores.

The United States is the only developed nation not to ratify the international waste treaty, the Basel Convention, which carries amendments that forbid the export of computer waste.

About half of all U.S. states have drafted or passed locals laws targeting the problem. The nation’s first computer waste legislation was passed in California last year, but critics say it will actually encourage export to Asia. The new rules require computer manufacturers to take more responsibility for recycling, but fail to put a ban on the cheapest method of dealing with it - export. They take effect in July.

One study estimates that California taxpayers will have to pay as much as $1 billion to handle its trashed computers by 2006. As recycling costs mount, so will pressure to unload it on poor countries.

Europe is also a major source of the waste. The export from there will also likely increase, says Jim Plunkett of the Basel Action Network. The European Union, like the United States, has instructed computer manufacturers to address the issue of recycling. But with Europe’s “porous borders,” says Plunkett, the new rules, which come into effect in August, will likely only spur more unlawful exporting.

Indian environmentalists are lobbying their own legislators to put a total ban on importing hazardous waste. Toxics Link’s Wankhade is optimistic that they can stop the illegal trade. Activists scored a victory last month by prompting a national assessment of the computer waste industry by the Central Pollution Control Board.

They have “realized a problem,” says Wankhade. “We are not in a position to recycle in a sound manner.”