In Seelampur, in north-east Delhi, pigeons fly over a stream choked with garbage. Intermittent metallic sounds come from the houses. Heaps of discarded wires, tubes, motherboards, mobile phones, ACs, and motors, fill up this street, just like the others nearby.
Seelampur is known for it e-waste recycling market, mainly for dismantling e-waste. Supplies from all over India come at night, and are processed in secrecy in most of the units or houses. The constituent parts dismantled in these units are sent to different areas for further recycling, while some are treated here.
According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, the country generates nearly 1.7 million to three million tonnes of e-waste annually and nearly 90% of this is recycled informally. Companies prefer to dispose of their waste through these units for a greater margin. Most household e-waste arrive at these units through the kabadiwala.
In the Mustafabad locality, a few children are playing on the garbage dumping site, their faces invisible behind the bulging smoke from the burning wires. They pick up the small copper pieces and sell them to the units in the locality. Walking through the locality, same metallic sounds greet you – mother boards processed inside the units. Workers fill up the rooms and for a stranger, getting inside is difficult. So is speaking with the workers.
Most get a monthly salary of Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 per month, working from 9 am to 6 pm and daily workers get Rs 200 to Rs 300. These workers are responsible for recycling nearly 90% of the e-waste that is generated.
There are no precautionary measures in place – workers are exposed to harmful gases emanating from the processing. Just a piece of cloth covering their mouth is all they have by way of safety. The intermittent coughing is treated with a tablet, “it is not only their problem”.
Mohammad*, a 17-year-old from Allahabad is busy burning the wires on the railway track, his hands are black with the removed rubber coatings. He gathers the copper pieces in a bucket and after washing them leaves them for drying. He earns Rs 200 to Rs 300 a day, oblivious to the fact that he breathes toxic air everyday. Burning cables releases chlorine, which is converted into dioxins and furans which can affect the functioning of the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer. E-waste contains many other toxic elements such as lead, mercury, cadmium, selenium and arsenic.
The workers are ignorant of the dangers their work holds. Going to a doctor would mean absence from work, therefore less money, which they cannot afford.
In a dimly lit shop, Nishant Sharma* is busy harvesting iron rods from discarded ACs. His hands are oily. He coughs, but he says, “this is normal.” Hailing from Haryana, he earns around Rs 8,000 per month, working from 9 am to 6 pm. As we are talking, the owner comes and asks me to leave the unit.
Salim* in his twenties, is busy with his colleagues loading cathode ray tubes onto a mini-truck. The alley to their unit is neatly lined with discarded TVs. Inside the walls are grey with soot. They have been working the whole day gathering the tubes and polishing them before sending to further process. A rickshaw with cathode ray tubes loaded on to it is a common sight in the locality. He is aware of the health hazards his work poses, but cannot leave. Only a piece of cloth around his head and mouth protects him.
Studies carried out by Toxics Link found heavy metals within the soil. This has been attributed to e-waste related activities. The water in the stream that runs through Seelampur is black, with an acrid smell. The informal industry, however, continues to flourish unregulated.