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According to the GISWatch 2010 report, electronics is the fastest growing sector in India and are purchased by about 52 million people. From 1993 to 2000 the number of PCs owned by Indians grew 604% and one can only imagine how many computers have been bought since then.

India produced over 300,000 tonnes of e-waste in 2010 but almost double this amount – an additional 500,000 tonnes — were imported illegally into the country. India has become THE e-waste dumping ground of Asia.

A new report commissioned by the APC written by Osama Manzar and Divya Menon of the Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation takes a critical look at what is being done in the country to manage e-waste. APCNews talked to co-author Divya Menon.

Making space for e-waste in policy

While the Indian government has taken steps passing a number of environmental protection acts in recent years, no act covers e-waste specifically. Typically, e-waste is lumped in the “hazardous waste” section, as it is in the 2000 Environmental Protection Act written by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Existing policies deal with e-waste address production and trade of electronic products and services, but don’t go on to address the final disposal of the products once they become obsolete. However, the Ministry of Environment and Forestsis finally addressing e-waste management in India, and has put forward a set of draft rules developed in conjunction with inputs from the Manufacturer’s Association of IT Industry com, GTZ, , Greenpeace and Toxicslink under the draft “E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2010” based on the Environment Protection Act, 1986 (Sections 6, 8 & 25).

Informal solution to a formal problem: 90% of e-waste recycled by informal sector

“We welcome these rules and see them as a positive response to the call for stringent policy-level action on e-waste management,” Menon says. “The new rules provide a detailed list of the responsibilities falling on the various stakeholders. But they fail to address key concerns related to the integration of informal recyclers,”

This is a serious concern – the informal sector takes care of 90% of the country’s e-waste. “It is essential that informal recyclers are included in any long-term e-waste management policy. The legislation covers the role of formal recyclers but lacks a definite framework on how consumers should go about disposing of e-waste, and it is unrealistic to expect Indian electronics vendors to keep track of who bought what and when,” she adds.

“The issue related to e-waste management in India is not whether or not it is being recycled, but rather how it is being recycled”, says Menon. E-waste is not accumulating in public areas nor are trash cans are overflowing with old lap tops and cell phones in India. The informal sector is swift to go from house to house to collect the used goods that are no longer being used, extract what it wants from them before burning them or destroying them.

“Informal recyclers are usually children. They come from families with age-old traditions of recycling. They’ve simply taken on e-waste as an extension of the recycling that they already do,” explains Menon. The problem is that they just hack the electronics open however they can and extract what they want. They don’t have access to protective clothing or equipment. And they have no education regarding how to handle the harsh chemicals that are later released into the environment and water-sources.

Rather than eliminating informal recyclers from the process and taking away from their livelihoods, in their report DEF suggests creating a bridge between the formal and informal recyclers, where informal recyclers could continue to collect the used waste items but sell them to formal recycling centres, allowing the formal recyclers to recycle them appropriately.

E-waste is everyone’s responsibility

“Civil society has a huge role to play in how e-waste policy will be developed. Typically in India, civil society’s work has been limited to policy advocacy and research but it is also important that it build more awareness around the issues at the bottom most level of the societal pyramid” says Menon.

“Especially since the civil society network penetrates its outreach to levels of the society which is second only to the government’s outreach to grassroots organisations. Civil society can act as a bridging mechanism between the informal and formal sectors,” she suggests.

Menon recognises a favourable trend in government which is moving towards the creation of more environmentally-conscious policies – which include the elaboration of e-waste management policies and promotion of a greener and more efficient use of ICTs within the country.

But the report concludes that e-waste management depend on the capacities of multiple stakeholders. Local government, the role of the formal recyclers, citizen awareness and attitudes, as well as manufacturers and bulk consumers. The need of the hour is create awareness and the engagement. It is up to the various actors to work together, share knowledge, resources and technology.

“Sustainable ICT procurement, usage, distribution and disposal mechanisms must guide economic and social development programmes and the Indian government must be ready to discuss debate and pass vital legislations regarding ICTs and the environment,” she closes in her report, “and the informal recyclers must be officially included so that they can carry on with the collection and segregation and hand over the e-waste to formal recyclers for safe disposal.”

This article was written for APC’s GreeningIT initiative and is based on the report by Digital Empowerment Foundation and the Global Information Society Watch 2010 report for India .

Photo by The National Labor Committee. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 2.0

Second photo: by Mosman Council. Used with permission under Creative Commons licence 2.0