Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Computer graveyard

Thousands of computers are illegally dismantled and recycled in the dirty lanes of Mustafabadf in north-east Delhi endangering health and environment.

By Ramesh Menon

Photos by: Shadab Nazmi


Fahmida Khatoon is angry and anguished. The 72-year-old’s son is in the  business of e-waste sorting, which something 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). Her 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 of 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 recycles dangerous e-waste. High profit margins keep this computer graveyard bustling, despite this business being illegal. Delhi alone has 4,000 illegal e-waste recycling units. But behind this thriving business are toxic dangers, which the workers know little about or care.

Health Effects

Enter the area and your eyes burn as the toxic smoke from burning computer motherboards hots you. The acrid smell snakes into your nostrils, making you gasp as lungs protest at this invasion. It’s another world, alright.

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 massive business enterprise are evident, inside houses and in the open as the ripping, filling 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 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 World Health Organization(WHO), e-waste connected health risks may result from direct contact with hardful 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 Bharti 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 chemical-dixions, furans, as well as heavy metals and acid fumes. Ultimately, the cost of recycling our old computers fo re-waste handlers is the respiratory disress, 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.”

Mohammad 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 tubes (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. 2500. He dismantles about 60 monitors daily, enough to give him a hearty meal. Ask him if ever wants to be an engineer and pat comes the reply.” I am already an engineer. What I dream of becoming is a baker 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 is found that no norms were followed as the bulk of e-waste was handled by the unorganized sector.

For the families that live in Mustafabad, life goes on normally. Shahin, whose husband piles 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 is fine with it. After all, it keeps the kitchen fire burning.

All that cannot be sold or recycled is dumped in the garbage heap. From here, trucks of Municipal Corporations of Delhi(MCD), 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.








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