The role technology has played in India’s economic expansion over the course of recent decades is no secret. Beneath the growth, however, an e-waste crisis is fermenting.
The world produces almost fifty million metric tonnes of e-waste annually. India produces two million tonnes of this. On top of this, large quantities of e-waste produced in other countries land on India’s shores.
The sheer volume of e-waste being produced lends urgency to finding sustainable solutions to manage it. Yet only a fifth of the world’s e-waste output is properly recycled. The toll of this – both on health and the environment – is a problem India is witnessing firsthand.
Responsibility for the processing of more than 95 percent of India’s e-waste falls to an informal network of manual workers known as kabadiwalas or raddiwalas. They collect, dismantle and dispose of items of e-waste themselves.
The result is that India’s kabadiwalas and raddiwalas – who include men, women, and children – work without environmental protections. Workers handle e-waste without safety equipment. This occurs even when using methods like incineration or acid immersion to dismantle what cannot be broken apart by hand. The consequence of this is exposure to toxic gases, without so much as safety masks, goggles or gloves. This leaves workers vulnerable to a plethora of health effects – not to mention the impact on the environment.
The reward for this work can be as little as 200 rupees a day. The grim reality of this industry, as a result, is one which operates outside of the law and with little to no regard for the safety of those it employs, even children. Reports indicate frightening commonality of respiratory illnesses caused by unsafe working conditions. Yet with weak enforcement of the law, it looks unlikely that the situation will improve any time soon.