Success of Digital India will bring e-waste

28th August 2016, ECONOMIC TIMES

The World Economic Forum places India at number 91 in readiness to transform intoa digitalised economy. Notwithstanding this poor ranking, the government’s Digital India idea is futuristic and compelling. The plan comprises three components: creation of a digital infrastructure, delivering services digitally and digital literacy.

28th August 2016, ECONOMIC TIMES

The World Economic Forum places India at number 91 in readiness to transform intoa digitalised economy. Notwithstanding this poor ranking, the government’s Digital India idea is futuristic and compelling. The plan comprises three components: creation of a digital infrastructure, delivering services digitally and digital literacy. 250,000 gram panchayats will be connected with an optic fibre network and every village in the country will be covered through mobile connectivity. Mary Meeker, a partner at Kleiner Perkins VC fund, forecasts that India is set to become the world’s second largest smartphone market in 2017. If all this can be made to work, there is no doubt that India will be transformed. Every citizen would fervently hope for success with our digital aspirations.

With every vision the law of unintended consequences kicks in. When Thomas Edison built the Edison Electric Light Station with his 125-hp steam engine, he could not imagine its future environmental impact. When Henry Ford desired to make a personal car accessible to every American, it was difficult for him to visualize the pollution aspects of his ambition. Now a whole century later, the power and auto industries are completely seized of the issues. Digitizing carries the issue of e-waste.

This is particularly ominous for India for two reasons: firstly, our national record of surveillance of laws is patchy, as evidenced by infarctions of public hygiene, industrial pollution and haphazard urbanization; secondly, because India is set to adopt digitization more rapidly than many other nations in the coming two decades, our growth of e-waste is likely to top the world charts. Therefore Digital India must have a component to limit e-waste. How big is the issue of e-waste?

What is e-waste and how much will India generate?

E-waste comprises of wastes generated from used electronic devices and household appliances which are not fit for their original intended use and are destined for recovery, recycling or disposal. Such wastes encompasses wide range of electrical and electronic devices such as computers, hand held cellular phones, personal stereos, including large household appliances such as refrigerators, air conditioners etc. E-wastes contain over 1000 different substances many of which are toxic and potentially hazardous to environment and human health, if these are not handled in an environmentally sound manner. Here are some facts and extrapolations :

  1. The world already produces e-waste equivalent to seven times the size of the Giza pyramid, roughly 42 million metric tons in just 2014, as per United Nations University.
  2. India generated 1.7 million tonnes of e-waste in 2014 which is roughly 1.3 kg e-waste per capita. If penetration of electronics and electrical products in India by 2030 have to grow even to today’s average world capita which leads to e-waste of 6 kg per capita, the absolute e-waste generation for India will grow five times the current level to 9 million tons in 2030!
  3. Another way of estimation of e-waste generation for 2030 is taking into consideration US EPA’s estimation of 5-10% global increase in the generation of e-waste each year. Given the low penetration of devices in India, our growth may well be 15% on the smaller base, approximately 15 million tons e-waste could be generated by 2030—this is scary.

Environmental and health impact of e-waste
Developing countries with rapidly growing economies handle e-waste from developed countries, and from their own internal consumers. Though the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forest has made import of e-waste illegal, a fair amount of e-waste is still illegally imported into India. Currently, majority of e-waste handled in India is through informal sector using rudimentary practices. The informal sector’s recycling practices magnify health risks. For example, primary and secondary exposure to toxic metals, such as lead, results mainly from open-air burning used to retrieve valuable components such as gold. Combustion from burning e-waste creates fine particulate matter, which is linked to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease.

While the health implications of e-waste are difficult to isolate due to the informal working conditions, poverty, and poor sanitation, several studies1

in Guiyu, a city in south-eastern China, offer insight. Guiyu is known as the largest e-waste recycling site in the world, and the city’s resident’s exhibit substantial digestive, neurological, respiratory, and bone problems. For example, 80 percent of Guiyu’s children experience respiratory ailments, and are especially at risk of lead poisoning. Residents of Guiyu are not the only ones at risk. These chemicals are not biodegradable—they persist in the environment for long periods of time, increasing exposure risk.

As per a WHO study, children are especially vulnerable to the health risks that may result from e-waste exposure and, therefore, need more specific protection. As they are still growing, children’s intake of air, water and food in proportion to their weight is significantly increased compared to adults, – and with that, the risk of hazardous chemical absorption. In India, “about 4-5 lakh children between the age group of 10- 15 are observed to be engaged in various e-waste activities, without adequate protection and safeguards in various yards and recycling workshops”, said D. S. Rawat, Secretary General ASSOCHAM while publishing an ASSOCHAM-cKinetics 2016 study on e- waste.

Further there are data security implications. I froze while listening to an e-waste operator, who downloaded confidential customer data from a pen drive discarded by a top I.T. company. Imagine Home Ministry or Army e-waste in the hands of certain kinds of state enemies!

What should India do?
On the positive side e-waste contains many valuable materials like rare metals, which are well worth recovering, provided one uses green technologies. Just like green-power entered electricity generation as a business, e-waste disposal can be a business: this has been demonstrated by companies like Attero. The threat of generating e-waste should not diminish our national ambitions in digitizing the country and e- enabling the citizens.

Brett H. Robinson (2009)” E-waste: An assessment of global production and environmental impacts, Science of the Total Environment 408 (2009) 183–191

Along with digitalization plans, our nation needs a matching e-waste plan to contain the e-mess, an advance type of planning rather than a post-facto approach. The first big step is to recognize that the e- waste monster is being created right now.

(The author acknowledges the research and editorial support of Ms Alka Upadhyay, Tata Sons Limited)

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