India produces about 400,000 tonnes of electronic waste each year, growing exponentially. Handling this is a great challenge. What adds to it is the fact that the country is one of the lead importers of all kinds of waste—hazardous included. Almost all of this is recycled or scrapped by the unorganized sector using the most rudimentary methods that pollute. Our reporters found a thriving ‘illegal’ trade and dangerous working conditions. The environment ministry’s answer has been to grant its first and only licence to import e-waste to a company called Attero Recycling—to encourage its Roorkee plant, which it calls a model. Our reporters found Attero reselling e-waste instead of recycling it. The ministry’s regulatory attempts do not recognize the small players who actually recycle e-waste, found out Ruhi Kandhari, Jyotika Sood and photographer Sayantan Bera
Arnab Pratim Dutta visited Attero’s recycling unit in Roorkee, posing as a scrap dealer from Moradabad
Attero, India’s recognized recycling facility for e-waste, is about 20 minutes from Roorkee. Its walls and gates are about eight feet high. A signboard warns of CCTV. The security guards have orders to prevent outsiders from carrying inside mobile phones, pen drives or cameras.
I was there on May 3, 2010, with a scrap dealer from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh. We were to meet D B Chhetri, head of administration and security of the plant, a retired lieutenant colonel. Security checks and a short walk later, we entered the office around 3 pm. Our meeting started 15 minutes later.
We said we wanted motherboards. Chhetri said he needed motherboards because “they are precious”. He offered to sell full computers and peripherals. Our conversation was interrupted by a man who walked in; he wanted to buy a Xerox machine. The deal got sealed quickly for Rs 4,000.
Chhetri then called an assistant to show us around. We were taken to a hall in which new computers were stacked. We wanted black computers; about 50 such were in the adjacent building. We decided we wanted 100.
Back at Chhetri’s office, we bargained—unsuccessfully. The standard rate for Pentium III machines was Rs 3,000; P IV machines cost Rs 4,000; and black computers commanded an additional Rs 500. We would be back in a few days. Chhetri asked us to bring motherboard samples for him.
Kareem, a scrap dealer from Seelampur, joined us on our second visit four days later. Chhetri told us that as per the environment ministry’s new rules on e-waste, Attero could not sell its wares officially to vendors from Moradabad and Seelampur—a fake receipt should do, he said. We would try out a sample first before placing the final order.
As we got talking, Kareem promised Chhetri he would buy truckloads of waste from Attero. Soon after, Chhetri took us to the godown. It was nothing short of a supermarket. Printers, printer cartridges, computer cabinets, hard disks, floppy drives, fax machines, Xerox machines—they were all there, neatly stacked in columns with their names labelled on signboards. Kareem checked the cost of each product. Keyboards cost Rs 20, SMPS (switched mode power supply, which transmits power from a source to the load, such as a computer) for Rs 55.
I chose a Dell Pentium IV with a 17-inch monitor, which had the serial number 3KKK81S. The Windows XP operating system was functional, I checked.
Chhetri signed the bill, in the name of my scrap dealer friend from Moradabad, on plain paper. As I left the premises, the security guard kept the bill and gave me a photocopy.
I had just bought a computer for Rs 4,500 from a registered recycler that boasts of being India’s only end-to-end recycling facility.
Ruhi Kandhari visited Attero to get their side of the story
After Arnab gave me a heads-up, I was prepared for the security checks. Four officials of Attero—CEO Nitin Gupta, Research and Development Director Praveen Bhargava, Administration and Security Head D B Chhetri and Plant Head Param Prakash—greeted my colleague Sayantan Bera at the building’s reception.
Chhetri explained why security was crucial for the Rs 35-crore plant—they had developed the recycling technology in their laboratories and did not want it leaked. Gupta walked us around the plant’s four units—shredder and separator, smelter, electro refinery, and research and development facility. It can process 36,000 tonnes of waste in a year, though it gets only 600 tonnes at present. Hence it imports e-waste from developed countries. Gupta said formal recyclers like them found the going difficult given the competition from the unorganized sector.
After we got possession of the computer Arnab had bought, I sent Gupta an e-mail. He replied: “As a company policy we do not sell an e-waste to the unorganized sector. We have a very transparent and open culture at Attero, as you might have witnessed during your plant visit.” Attero sold refurbished computers only if companies allowed it to refurbish and sell them, and they make their takeback policy clear when they sell it.
Arnab, though, did not get any such directives from Attero.
Sources in the Central Pollution Control Board said e-waste recycling units are not allowed to sell e-waste. They could sell refurbished computers if they have the board’s permission for it. Besides, Attero’s licence expired in December last year and that makes it illegal to buy, sell or recycle e-waste, the official said.