August 19 is World Photography Day. The importance of pictures in saying a story can’t be understated. More often than not, the message is conveyed more powerfully, directly and candidly than through words.
India Legal magazine, too, has published many photo-essays to deliver a strong message on issues that affect us. We pick one done by our Managing Editor RAMESH MENON (text) and SHADAB NAZMI (photographs) on a computer graveyard in Mustafabad, north-east Delhi. The dismantling and recycling of computers is affecting health and environment.
We dedicate this to World Photography Day
FAHMIDA Khatoon is angry and anguished. The 72-year-old’s son is in the business of e-waste sorting, something she is dead against. “I told my son numerous times to change his business, but he never listens. My grandson was born mentally challenged because of the poison around,” she says. The grandson, a 14-year-old, vacuously grins, playing with a screwdriver and the scrap around him. He smiles when other children call him bandar (monkey). He doesn’t know what that means. Just like he doesn’t know the toxicity of the world he lives in. His family extracts chips, diodes and batteries from inverters and resells them. Despite grave health risks, they carry on. In the battle for survival, nothing else matters.
Welcome to Mustafabad in North-east Delhi, a sea of activity where thousands of discarded computers arrive from all over India, mainly from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Maharashtra. They are broken down primitively and recycled. For decades, practically every house here recycles dangerous e-waste. High profit margins keep this computer graveyard bustling, despite this business being illegal. Delhi alone has over 4,000 illegal e-waste recycling units. But behind this thriving business are toxic dangers, which the workers know little about or care.
Enter the area and your eyes burn as the toxic smoke from burning computer motherboards hits you. The acrid smell snakes into your nostrils, making you gasp as lungs protest at this invasion. It’s another world, all right.
The narrow winding lanes throb with activity. Old computers lie in heaps by the roadside, waiting to be broken up and recycled. Wires, plastic, metal waste…all are scattered around. The sounds of a massive business enterprise are evident, inside houses and in the open as the ripping, filing and polishing goes on. Workers, covered with grime and dust, their hands dirty and gnarled, their eyes revealing the tragedy of their lives, plod on all day.
E-waste is a part-and-parcel of their lives and they live with the toxic fumes in their poorly ventilated rooms where the boards are burned. Soon, the insidious crawl of the smoke inside their bodies will damage the kidney, brain and lungs, resulting in skin diseases, hormonal imbalances, asthma and even cancer. And yes, birth defects too. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), e-waste-connected health risks may result from direct contact with harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, chromium and inhalation of toxic fumes.
But they have little choice. Most know that breaking down thousands of computers and recycling it is illegal. But like everything in India, there always are loopholes in the system which can be managed.
Award winning environmentalist Bharati Chaturvedi who is the founder of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, points out: “The informal sector is forced to recover e-waste in ways that endanger their health. They inhale some of the world’s most toxic chemicals-dioxins, furans, as well as heavy metals and acid fumes. Ultimately, the cost of recycling our old computers for e-waste handlers is the respiratory distress, possible cancers, reproductive and development disorders. If the brand owners were more committed to the legally mandated concept of extended producer responsibility, we could have both recycled and safeguarded their health.”
Mohammed Faisal, 16, begins his day by heading to a dirty, toxic gutter. He wades in, unconcerned, looking for discarded computer scrap. He then sells it to a kabadiwala for a few rupees before he starts his hard, grueling work in a dingy room. He first opens a monitor, casts the plastic body aside to be sold later as scrap, and then, dismantles the cathode ray tube (CRT). He cleans, polishes and refurbishes it. It will soon be packed off to Bangalore, where it will be assembled in low-cost, unbranded television sets which are sold for Rs 2,500. He dismantles about 60 monitors daily, enough to give him a hearty meal. Ask him if he ever wants to be an engineer and pat comes the reply, “I am already an engineer. What I dream of becoming is a banker as there is money to be made there.”
Shockingly, there are no health precautions in this business. Workers don’t have protective gear. In a study done by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry, it was found that no norms were followed as the bulk of e-waste was handled by the unorganized sector.
The WHO points out that children are especially vulnerable as their central nervous system, immune system, reproductive and digestive system are developing and exposure to toxic substances could hamper natural growth and development.
The area is full of entrepreneurs with ingenious ideas. Sarfraz Ali has found a subtle way to tell people his profession. He has fixed a computer monitor over his door, a sign that monitors and parts are sold here. Saleem Sultan, owner of Saleem Computers, meanwhile, supervises monitors being unloaded. These will soon be dismantled. CRTs are refurbished and make their way to Seelampur, from where they go to Bangalore.
As for the grime and toxicity, it hardly matters. “It is a good business,” he says matter-of-fact.
Saleem, in turn, works for Shahnawaz, an entrepreneur who has been in the recycling business for 18 years. “It may look like dirty business, but there is a lot of money in it. Look at Shahnawaz for instance,” he says gleefully, as a worker fixes stickers on the old CRTs labeled “Shahnawaz Computers”.
Apart from computer monitors, central processing units too are dismantled. The outer aluminium cases are set aside to be sold as scrap. With a blow torch, the motherboards are burnt to extract precious metals like gold, silver, copper and platinum.
Some 6,000 motherboards are burnt by Shakeel, a worker, to extract just four to five grams of gold and silver. Inhaling these toxic fumes has almost killed him as he suffers from second-stage tuberculosis.
Toxic Links, a Delhi-based NGO that follows the money trail in recycling e-waste, found traders amassing attractive profits in this life-threatening business. They have also managed to escape the law due to political patronage.
For the families that live in Mustafabad, life goes on normally. Shahin, whose husband plies this trade, nonchalantly steps over piles of e-waste outside her home. When she first went home after she got married, her neighbors used to call her “kabadiwale ki biwi”.
She’s fine with that. After all, it keeps the kitchen fires burning.
All that cannot be sold or recycled is dumped in a garbage heap. From here, trucks of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi take it to an incinerator where it is burnt. This is dumped in a landfill in Okhla. Here, rag-pickers wait with magnets to collect small iron fillings, which are then sold to smelting factories.
The unregulated madness goes on.