Magazine 26 Script: A Dangerous Junkyard
Signature Tune Begin.mp3
Hello, you are listening to Panoscope, a fortnightly radio magazine produced by
Panos Radio South Asia. On this edition of Panoscope, we go to North Chennai
in South India, where dumping of obsolete electronic goods from across the
world is bringing about an acute environmental crisis.
In: SFX A Dangerous Junkyard.mp3
We also hear a worker who is earning his living by extracting metals dangerously
from electronic scrap.
In: SFX Arun Kumar O-T.mp3
Arun Kumar is a father of two who makes a living by collecting electronic scrap.
He dips circuit boards in and out of acid filled drums, stripping the boards of its
last remnants of copper and traces of silver. His family also helps him in the
process. None of them wear a mask to ward off the noxious fumes. It is a
dangerous life… Arun spoke to Panoscope.
In: Arun Kumar O-T Final Mixdown.mp3
My name is Arun Kumar. I earn a living by selling the waste and scrap of old
computers and refrigerators. I have two children. I earn about 50 to 100 Indian
Rupees a day. I was born and bought up in Chennai. I collect the plastic that lies
thrown around the streets and burn them together and sell them to big dealers.
Apart from this I also take out scraps from computers and collect the useful
metals and sell them.
I earn a paltry sum in this manner. My entire family depends on my wages. Now
my wife and children have also started collecting scrap. They segregate the
waste for me to break them down later and extract the metals. We usually put the
waste in acids or burn them to extract the metals. In the process, our eyes and
hands hurt and feel like it is being burnt. Sometimes the skin peels off. But we do
not know any other work as we are illiterate. So we depend on this for our
existence. Children often complain that their eyes are burning and they cannot
breathe. But what to do, this is our fate. This is how we live daily.
Nobody from the government or anywhere has come to see us or provide any
relief. Only people who come here are a few from the media or students from
foreign nations who visit this junk yard. We live in a small hut near the junkyard.
Even if we are sick we have to go to work otherwise we have to starve that day.
We don’t even have the money to visit the doctors if we are ill. We often get skin
diseases. But still we cannot afford to do anything about it. We apply some mud
over it and get back to work or our children will starve that day.
We have no clue about what goods are being sent to our agents. We do
whatever the agent asks us to work on. What does it contain? What is the value
of the product? How much profit do they make? We have no clue. All we know is
that our daily wage is 150 rupees. This is our entire world.
Ever wondered what happens to old computers, television sets and mobile
phones when people across the world go in for newer models? It is most likely
that they end up in junkyards in India, waiting to be recycled, in the most crude
and hazardous manner.
After China imposed a ban on the import of e-waste in 2002, India has emerged
as one of the largest dumping grounds for the developed world. Once the
electronic equipment, mostly computers, turn obsolete in the West, they are
exported as e-waste into the South Asian market, mostly to India and Pakistan. A
large number of workers who work in this recycling industry, extracting useful
metals from electronic waste or e-waste are putting both their health and the
environment to great risk. Panoscope correspondent Gokul Nair reports from
In: A Dangerous Junkyard Final Mixdown.mp3
Fade In: SFX New Moore Market Ambience.mp3
We are at the New Moore Market which is in largely underdeveloped North
Chennai in Tamil Nadu. The business here makes money out of electronic scrap
dumped by developed nations. The money is good, the risks grave: But there is
very little concern about the risks or long term implications of this business.
The market streets are usually choked with smoke from burning electronic junk.
Children playing with the hazardous waste strewn around is a regular sight.
In a bid to eke out a living, the junkyard hands who work for a pittance double up
as rag pickers. They scour the city for plastic scrap and smelt them along with
plastic wastes from wires and electronic equipment. These wastes are then
molded into plastic blocks which are sold to bigger dealers to earn a few extra
bucks. Metals like iron, copper and gold are extracted by burning the scrap or by
soaking them in concentrated acids. Workers plunging their hands into chemical
solutions and treating the gold-coated areas in circuit boards to recover wee bits
of gold, is not an uncommon sight. The burning and melting of these toxic
substances put workers’ health at risk. They are living testimonies of breathing
problems and skin ailments that they refuse to share with us for fear of losing
Act 1 Worker
We get waste and scrap both from within the country and abroad. We mostly get
televisions, computers and refrigerator spare parts through our agents. We take
out all the useful materials from the scrap and throw away or burn the rest. We
get copper, iron, gold and brass from these scrap. We break the printed circuit
boards into small pieces and send them back to the big dealers.
New Moore Market alone has a worker strength of 50 which includes women and
children. The workers are paid a daily wage of 100 to 150 Indian Rupees,
depending on their workload. These workers are just a small fraction of a huge
population who are part of this illegal but flourishing trade. It is the worker who
bears the brunt; it is the worker who compromises his health… all for a paltry
sum. The bigger scrap dealers or agents make quite a killing, collecting metals
like gold and copper from the scrap. Agents claim they need to burn the waste
from at least ten computers to extract a gram of gold.
The business goes well beyond these local agents. The big computer
manufacturers with global presence have been adopting a double standard
recycling policy for developed and developing countries. This, because
developing countries easily twist environmental laws and regulations to suit the
trade and economy. Chirantana Kar, a Project Head at Toxic Links, an
environmental organization has this to say…
Act 2 Chirantana Kar, Project Head – Toxic Links
They are the developed nations and we are the developing nations so the rules
are actually different for them and for us. If you see, for example, I-B-M and H-P
are major manufacturers of computers, they have different rules for the U-S-A
and different rules for us. H-P has a recycling sector in the U-S. H-P follows a
take-back-policy in the U-S but it doesn’t follow any such rule in India. They have
no such rules when it comes to countries like us.
However, the Basel Convention was formulated to promote cleaner technology
and ban import of toxic waste, including obsolete computers. India ratified this
convention in 1990.
Despite this, Chennai has been importing computer scrap from the U-S-A,
Singapore, Malaysia, the Middle East and Belgium. Absence of proper legislation
and proper technology to scan imports have seen increased import of hazardous
e-waste masquerading as mixed waste or plastic scrap. There are also cases
where obsolete junk come in as charity or donations to schools and educational
institutions. Exporting countries justify it, stating they are providing some form of
employment to developing countries. But Sudhakar, an environmental activist
has a different tale to tell.
Act 3 Sudhakar, Environment Activist
In developed countries, the laws and regulations are quite strict. If somebody
wants to send a computer to a junkyard it is not that easy. He needs to go to the
recycler, give the computer there and get a certificate before he buys a new
computer. What happens to these computers is that the so called recycler buys
it, charges him a recycling fee of 5-10 US Dollars and he repacks it and sends it
across to a country like India. What happens here is it is the money in the front
end and at the back end. It is ten times more profitable for a guy in the U-S to
send it across to another country than reprocessing it in his own backyard. They
do it in the garb of saying that they are providing employment, but they are
actually killing the people. It is a very selfish attitude.
Most of the electronics are manufactured in countries in Asia. Countries like U-S
are only [the] users. They want to use the benefits of it. They don’t want to take
up the manufacturing process so as to conserve their natural resources. That is
why the manufacturing is done in some place, the user is in some other country
and the waste is sent back to the other countries. Underdeveloped and
developed countries are using their natural resources, manufacturing products
for someone else, and the post consumer waste comes back to these Asian
countries. Primarily the sufferers are India, China, Pakistan, Cambodia and
Experts say the failure to categorize e-wastes has been one of the major reasons
for the continuous flow of imports. The International Trade Classification System
has also failed to allot a specified code to electronic wastes. Hence, the waste
sneaks into the country in the name of mixed plastic or metal waste. The scrap
dealers claim that sometimes they themselves are also not aware of what their
cargo shipment might contain since the codes may differ from plastics to metal or
even animal wastes. Nityanand Jayaram of Corporate Accountability Desk
shares his views.
Act 4 Nityanand
International trade is tracked by the governments across the world using a
harmonized system of codes called the international trade classification codes.
These are eight digit numbers that are given to all commodities. Cow dung has a
number, horse manure has a number, zinc, ash has a number, but unfortunately
e-waste does not have a number. So when computer scrap comes into a country,
its either clubbed under a larger grouping like the plastic scrap or mixed plastic
waste or thing that have an I-T-C-H-S code. As a result the assessing officer at
the concerned port with the customs is unable to distinguish the electronic scrap
consignment. He would have to open every container to find out. Basel
Convention recognizes the E-Waste as a hazardous waste owing to the
contaminants in it. There is no clear way by which the importing – exporting
country governments can exercise a check on the movement of electronic scrap.
Nobody has moved in the Basel Convention asking for a specialized code. So as
a result though there is a lot of talk about this, there is no way actually to check
Experts say it is high time that India adopts China's strategy of stringent trade
regulations on e-waste; either by organizing the recycling sector or by advocating
environmentally sound technologies.
Till that day dawns, these scrap workers will continue to heave and sigh to eat
one square meal.
Fade Out: SFX New Moore Market Ambience.mp3
That’s it for this edition of Panoscope. Thanks for listening.
Fade In: Signature Tune Ends
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