The Indian government has yet again proposed changes to the e-waste management rules in the country. How will these new laws affect the current system, and what is in store for the future?
India, a country of 1.25 billion people, is the world’s third-largest e-waste generator. With no proper documentation available to estimate the actual generation of electronic waste, the government has implemented lukewarm regulations over the years. As of April 2023, with a very inferior formal sector in operation, the government has once again proposed changes in the legal mandate with complete disregard for the informal sector, which is a dominant player. By giving the capitalist regime free will to do as they wish, the new laws seem more detrimental than doing any good to society.
The E-waste Management (EWM) Rules of 2016 introduced Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) with targets for the first time. It ensured strict criteria for the effective collection, storage, transportation and disposal of e-waste. The rules also brought manufacturers, dealers, retailers and refurbishers under the confines of the new law. The amendment to the EWM Rules of 2016 in 2018 introduced Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) registration. PROs act as a middleman between manufacturers and recyclers and are responsible for collecting and channelling e-waste to ensure better management. PROs must also register with the Central Pollution Control Board and provide proof of collection.
New Amendments and Backlash
As of May 2022, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change announced a new set of regulations, modifying the EWM Rules of 2016. The new legislation, which came into effect in April 2023, has discarded the previously defined PROs and will instead require companies to hire authorised recyclers to manage the collection and recycling of their products on their behalf. Under these new rules, producers will no longer be responsible for collecting e-waste but can purchase certificates that show they have achieved their targets. The new legislation has come under intense criticism for abolishing EPR along with discrediting the PROs. This legislation will transfer the onus of recycling to the recyclers, which in India’s case are very few (less than 10%) and restricted to big cities. This move will now indirectly increase the pressure on the informal recycling sector.
Anonymous and Exploited: the Unorganised E-waste Management Sector
Concerning India, more than 95% of electronic waste is managed by the informal sector outside the legislative capacity. The workforce primarily comprises poor, illiterate people, including women and children, in slums. Workers earn their livelihood by collecting waste, manually dismantling it and burning it in the open to extract precious metals. The process is illegal and causes large-scale pollution, adverse health impacts, and environmental repercussions such as the release of toxic fumes. A report from the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) states that about 80% of the informal sector workers suffer from respiratory issues due to the lack of health and safety measures. These workers work without regard for their well-being, and instead of bringing them under legal purview, the government rewards the country’s greedy capitalists.
When Miles Park, a senior lecturer at UNSW Sydney, conducted a field visit to Mandoli, he observed people working in enclosed areas indistinguishable from prisons. When he inquired about the health impacts and pollution caused, he realised the workers were reluctant to discuss it and feared their operations would be shut down if word got out. Young children are also part of the labour force here. Come rain or sun; they are forced to work without any precautionary measures daily to make ends meet.
The lack of inclusion and unfair treatment of the informal sector by the Indian government in the policies is a blatant violation of human rights. It also violates environmental justice wherein low-income communities are forced to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
If policies don’t help them, what will?
Even the laws that govern the small-scale formal sector are not robust. For example, a study conducted by IIT Kharagpur researchers requested data from all the State Pollution Control Boards and got data only from two that had a lot of discrepancies. This issue proves a lack of accountability on the side of the authorities.
The proposed new amendment also increased the categories and product types to be recycled from 21 to 95. Currently, the formal recycling handling capacity is estimated to be 11×105 tons/year, whereas the minimum requirement is 22×105 tons/year. This rule and the exclusion of brand owners from the law could result in the formal sector turning to informal workers, increasing reliance on them.
It is evident now that India has a long way to implement better e-waste management laws. Prohibiting the informal sector from the legal scope is not ideal, and it is time that the government recognise them as the driving force needed. Also, the exclusion of companies is baseless as it will ultimately give them the freedom to produce goods without any distress leaving the rest of us to clean up after them.
The article was strategised by Deepa Sai
This article is authored by Ronniya who is a recent Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science graduate from Lund University. She enjoys reading, cooking and identifying solutions to reduce her carbon footprint. She previously volunteered as a board member at a farmers’ organisation in south Sweden along with being a board member for a student organisation on sustainable lifestyle. She has also worked in the e-waste recycling sector in India.
- E-waste management in India
- Scenario of E-waste in India and application of new recycling approaches for E-waste management
- E-waste in India and developed countries: Management, recycling, business and biotechnological initiatives
- A roadmap for development of sustainable E-waste management system in India
- Understanding the gap between formal and informal e-waste recycling facilities in India
- Modeling and assessment of e-waste take-back strategies in India