Calcutta sits on ticking e-waste bomb

Calcutta tops the chart in generating e-waste after Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Bangalore and Chennai.

An ill-equipped disposal system has ensured that a major chunk of the e-waste is crudely dismantled or burnt in a little over 1,000 informal units in the city and suburbs, exposing millions to health hazards, a Metro investigation, supported by the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, has found.

In contrast, the other cities have better systems in place. Bengal has only one of the 138 authorised e-waste collection and processing centres in the country, a Central Pollution Control Board source said.

A West Bengal Pollution Control Board official’s admission exposed the gravity of the situation. “We have only one authorised unit in the state for processing e-waste…. It is in Hooghly,” he said. “But the unit works with a limited variety of e-waste, mostly collected from a handful of IT companies.”

E-waste includes every bit of abandoned electronic and electrical material belonging to computers, CDs, mobiles, monitors, pumps and printers. Normally, the parts are dismantled and the waste burnt to extract expensive metals, including gold. The toxic fumes and the constant touch with metals like mercury, lead or cadmium can give rise to a host of ailments for workers involved in the unsupervised and unsafe process. Not to speak of the environmental pollution that is bound to affect people in general.

A 2015 survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) says Calcutta produces 35,000 tonnes of electronic waste annually. Though the city ranks fifth in the country, the volume of e-waste has grown four-fold in the past decade. Mumbai with 96,000 tonnes annually tops the list, followed by Delhi-NCR at 67,000 tonnes, Bangalore at 57,000 tonnes and Chennai at 47,000 tonnes.

While Maharashtra, including Mumbai, has 22 units with a capacity to process nearly 32,000 tonnes; Delhi-NCR has 13 units that can process 47,000 tonnes; Karnataka, including Bangalore, has 52 units to process 50,000 tonnes; and Tamil Nadu, including Chennai, has 14 units to process 39,000 tonnes. Bengal, including Calcutta, has a single unit with a capacity to process only 600 tonnes.

Computer equipment accounts for almost 68 per cent of e-waste, followed by telecommunication equipment, electrical equipment and medical equipment. E-waste contains thousands of toxic material and exposure to them – directly or indirectly – can cause headache, irritability, pain in the eye and vomiting apart from liver and kidney related ailments, say experts.

“The crude handling, dismantling and disposal of highly toxic e-waste can affect people in large numbers through contaminated soil and polluted surface and ground water,” Arunava Majumdar, former head and director of All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, said. “Burning the waste can add to air pollution. Such crude processing of e-waste definitely increases the risk of contracting a wide range of diseases, including cancer.”

At least 76% of workers involved in the e-waste business suffer from a host of respiratory ailments, according to the Assocham report. About 40,000 people in Calcutta are involved in the e-waste business. Most of the e-waste generated in the city ends up in the informal market, either directly or via areas like Magrahat and Sangrampur in South 24-Parganas, Maslandpur and Rajarhat in North 24-Parganas, and Salkia and Ghusuri in Howrah.

Biplabi Anukul Chandra Street, off Esplanade, has more than 50 makeshift second-hand refrigerator shops where fridges, including compressors containing highly toxic chlorofluorocarbon gas, are broken down without any precaution.

The road is part of the Chandni Chowk area where at least 3,000 people are directly involved in e-waste with a little over 500 shops handling cell phones.

There are nearly 20 spots in other parts of city, mainly Hazra-Ritchie Road, Maniktala, Rajabazar, Tangra, Chinar Park, Girish Park, Kankurgachi, that deal in e-waste on a smaller scale.

On the outskirts, entire families, including children, are involved in the dismantling process. “Everyone in my family is involved…. We have no other option; this is our livelihood,” Adam Ali Molla of Tekpanja village near Sangrampur station said.

The “livelihood” has turned into a cottage industry of sorts with many families operating from their homes.

“All these people collect the waste from various places, either directly from households or from waste collectors frequenting Calcutta,” Md Salim, an e-waste dealer in Sangrampur, said. “They dismantle the stuff and sell it to me. I send it to bigger dealers in Calcutta.”

Salim, who deals with computer-related equipment, sits in a small room full of motherboards, RAMs, DVD players, etc. His son has a separate e-waste business of printers.

An expert said there was only one unit in Bengal because others who wanted to set up units are stuck for want of land clearance. “In most other states, the government supports upcoming entrepreneurs, but not in Bengal,” he said.

Prosenjit Singh from Calcutta, whose family is in the e-waste business for more than two decades, even got the primary go-ahead from the state pollution control board and bought instruments. “After buying land in the Ruia industrial estate, I got to know that the land is not earmarked for industry…. I am now trying to get a clearance,” Singh said.

Sasanka Dev of NGO Disha, which has been working towards proper management of e-waste in the state for nearly a decade, said the government should help entrepreneurs like Singh.

“Otherwise, e-waste will be disposed of and dismantled in complete violation of environmental rules…. It will affect the health of millions… and let’s not forget the volume of e-waste is increasing every day,” Dev said.