A year in the life of a law

An assessment of what ails the implementation of e-waste rules

 
By Ashish Chaturvedi
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Ashish ChaturvediElectrical and electronic goods have made their presence ubiquitous. Right from the morning toast to the laptop during the day and the television in the evening, their presence cuts across time, space and socio-economic strata. It is a testimony to the spread of electronic goods that the snake charmer in the stereotypical image of the Indian society has a mobile phone.

Estimates by IIT-Kanpur show that the number of mobile phones in India will exceed the country’s population by 2022. But do we ever think about what happens to these electronic products once they expire? How do they fare in the hands of dealers of e-waste in the narrow alleys of Moradabad or in large industrial areas in Bengaluru? How many of us are even aware of a law that mandates environmentally sound management of electrical and electronic products when they reach their end of life, the E-Waste Management and Handling Rules of 2011?

Perceptions of e-waste

The story of e-waste in the country is symptomatic of a variety of challenges that confront a growing economy with its paradoxically myriad niches of poverty and affluence. The story has to be located in the paradoxes of environmental degradation and high-tech environmental compliance, policy formulation and (lack of) implementation, toxicity of products and the cleanliness of industries that make these products.

Let me list a few examples gleaned from my decade-long association with the electronic sector. First, there is the policy maker who believes that policy should deal first with solid waste and then with high quality waste like e-waste. What she/he forgets is that her/his own ministry has announced a set of rules to tackle the growing challenge of e-waste. Then there is the multinational company reaction that the rules put additional burden on their “bottom-line”—it must be remembered that these companies comply with similar or more stringent rules in the EU countries or in other developed countries.

There is also the typical NGO reaction that expresses discomfort with the toxicity in products, while advocating social acceptability of the informal sector that is involved in mishandling of the toxic products.

Such plurality of views is a reflection of the democratic fabric of India. It is also demonstrative of the divergence of interests of the stakeholders.

Ground realities

Let me recount a few ground realities. The state pollution control boards (SPCBs), which are at the forefront of implementing the e-waste rules, are weak entities with limited financial and human resources. Added to this is the archaic belief of regulating an industry through policing rather than creating incentives for compliance or vice-versa. As a result, any new regulation is considered an additional burden on the already dwindling resources and capacities of the boards. Further, the technical capacities of SPCBs need to be continuously upgraded to meet the emerging challenges and the creativity of the private sector. This has been an ongoing agenda but little has been accomplished.

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Having said that, it is astonishing that the people who work for some of the most creative organisations refuse to make efforts to find a solution to a problem as basic as e-waste management. This is despite the fact that most of these companies are not reluctant in implementing workable solutions in both developed and developing countries. Does this have something to do with the weakness of the Indian regulator? Why is the Indian policy maker not given the same respect by businesses as she/he is in Europe or in the US?

Moving on to the much-maligned and dirty recycling sector, there are two distinct voices. A major voice is that of the formal recycler who has a bone to pick with the informal recycling chain. But this recycler continues a thriving business with the informal recyclers. The rationale is straightforward: rather than operating recycling facilities with monthly costs running into hundreds of thousands, the formal recycler is better off collecting the material and then trading it with the informal sector. This is happening with regular impunity in the country’s largest cities. The informal sector is still getting large amounts of material, the only difference is that it now sources the waste from formal recyclers rather than from bulk generators.

The informal sector, therefore, is the flogging horse of all the stakeholders. The law has been unable to create channels that provide space to the informal sector.

Ironically, informal sector workers whose formalisation process I have supported for the past seven years are now complaining about the existence of the informal sector.

Way forward

Such despair could lead to two potential reactions. One, the familiar reaction of the rotten nature of the country’s legal-political-social fabric: “Nothing works”. The other is to think about potential solutions, both radical and simple. Let me suggest a few.

We need to take a close look at our SPCBs. I have met some of the most knowledgeable people in these SPCBs. Such people have scant impact because they work in a limited institutional space. A programme to radically enhance capacities of SPCBs must be implemented with financial support from the Centre. The investment in infrastructure and fancy equipment must take a backseat and people supposed to implement regulations should be brought to the forefront.

Till such time, what about our E-Waste Management and Handling Rules of 2011? Are they doomed to fail? I believe the regulators should sit in their watch towers, observe and then strike on the erring parties. They need not be in the field 24X7, monitoring effluents of industries.

The government should facilitate setting up of a consortium of the major companies that generate e-waste. A step in this regard would be to create a legal registry of producers who are allowed to place their products in the markets; such registries are working effectively in other parts of the world. The second step would be to create a programme to formalise units in the informal sector. Case studies of such formalisation are available in cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, Pune and Kolkata. What stops us from developing an eco-industrial park for e-waste generating small-and-medium enterprises? Such models have been developed for plastic manufacturers, textiles and even electroplaters. The records of the bulk generators of e-waste should be checked randomly to examine the rates at which the waste is disposed of and to whom. This would enable the identification of the non-compliant recyclers who are procuring material at high prices only to sell them to the informal sector at a profit.

By passing the e-waste rules, the government has made a giant leap in trying to find a solution for environmentally sound management of e-waste. Suggestions might make a difference between another “failed” legislation and a “best-practice”.

Ashish Chaturvedi is senior adviser with the Indo-German Environment Programme. Views expressed in the article are personal

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