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Web sketchbook shows what e-Delhi does to its waste
PAWANPREET KAUR  30th Sep 2012

E-waste workers at a dismantling unit in Delhi | Photo: Toxics Link

ndia as a nation is historically known to live within its means, recycling goods before finally selling them off to the kabaadi wallahs, where these materials enter yet another lifecycle. This journey of birth and rebirth of a product is often a circular one, coming to a full circle in industrial backdrops, right where the journey first began.

With the onset of liberalisation, however, this organic process became phenomenally burdened and the trappings of consumerism have spawned a mountainous growth of waste. E-waste, one of the most portentous forms of the world's refuse, has grown at an alarming rate and today poses a threat to the environment and to human health. Being a favoured dumping destination for e-waste, India is now doubly burdened with the task of e-waste management and despite the passage of the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules in 2011, little has been done to redeem the situation.

Now, an interesting web-project, called Delhi Digests, attempts to map out the city and its e-waste, juxtaposing questions of livelihood, sustainability and governance in a first of its kind case study. Born out of collaboration between Toxics Link and Tactical Technology Collective, the project has been designed as a sketchbook that records multiple voices and images of the city. Explains Maya Indira Ganesh of Tactical Technology Collective, "Delhi Digests was created with the intention of carrying out a visual mapping of the city and the socio-economic-political manifestations of e-waste in it."

The site takes a political stand on the question of e-waste, egging its readers to view it as an indicator of democracy and as a measure of equity. Ravi Aggarwal, director, Toxics Link, explains, "Delhi is emerging as a global capital of e-waste with roughly 12-14,000 tonnes of e-waste being collected, dismantled and recycled here every year. Considering the amount of people, money and physical space invested in e-waste, the issue is not simply one of management."

Roughly 12-14,000 tonnes of e-waste is collected, dismantled and recycled in Delhi every year. Considering the amount of people, money and physical space invested in e-waste, the issue is not simply one of management. — Ravi Aggarwal

While waste for many means the end-of-life of a product, Delhi Digests offers a fresh view. "E-waste has many stakeholders and its responsibility rests with the entire vertical paradigm of government, manufacturers, consumers, rag pickers, scrap dealers and recyclers," says Ganesh. This is why Delhi Digests offers an encounter between different perspectives, trying to expose the link between each of these stories. We find a map of Delhi that has several markers linking together videos, texts, photographs, infographics, statistics and conversations with activists, waste-pickers, urban planners, journalists and bureaucrats. "There are multiple narratives in the story of e-waste and we didn't want to crunch them down to one layer of information meta-structure," adds Ganesh.

The site takes us behind the scene to reveal how e-waste is dismantled and sorted in northwest Delhi before a final journey to the industrial units. Each of the component – keyboards, monitors, CPUs, printers, TVs, mobile phones and so on – is assigned a particular market, where it is dismantled manually right up till the tiniest bits of screws or wires. We also see rag pickers and trash workers leaning over large cauldrons of boiling chemicals, unmindfully inhaling hazardous fumes. "The story of e-waste is also the story of human beings and we wanted to show things in a different light. For instance, we talk about creating a bigger, better infrastructure. But in all honesty, the workers already working in this sector are our infrastructure."

The responsibility of safe disposal of e-waste lies primarily with the manufacturers, explains Aggarwal. "E-waste is not 100 per cent recyclable and the hazardous remains from these products remain in our ecosystems and poison them. As mandated by the law, consumers should return the products to the manufacturers instead give them to the kabaadi walahs. This way, their disposal will be done in a safe manner," he adds.

The law also mandates placement of yellow-coloured bins around the city for e-waste. "We hunted for this yellow bin all over Delhi but couldn't find one," adds Ganesh. "It is beginning to happen in the West; manufacturers here should be pressurised into printing instructions for safe disposal on the product itself. We need to realise that this pressure has to come from us as the onus of e-waste lies equally on us all."

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