Need to formalise work of rag pickers

The burgeoning environment concerns have led to setting of sustainable development goals that were not thinkable earlier.

The Assocham-KPMG study titled 'Electronic Waste Management in India' has ranked India as the fifth largest producer of e-waste in the world with an estimated annual generation of nearly 1.85 MT in 2016.

Although it accounts for only 4% of the e-waste generated globally, yet, in-depth analysis of the situation has alarmed policymakers and leaders in India.

With over 1.2 billion people, India is expected to have generated more than 55 MT of solid waste annually in 2018, out of which nearly 3 MT is the hazardous e-waste with a total value of over $60 billion.

The piling of e-waste and its unsafe handling is causing drastic environmental damages and health hazards — heavy metals and hazardous materials from the e-waste aren’t just polluting the environment but also damaging public health.

Nearly 70% of heavy metals including lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants found in landfills are accounted for by e-waste.

Despite having a fraction of the global e-waste, India is unfortunately ill-equipped in terms of skilled labour and efficient management resources to tackle e-waste recycling effectively.

Only 1.5% of the e-waste generated in the country gets recycled and nearly 95% of the e-waste generated in India is handled by the unorganised sector, which works without any safety precaution.

In order to address the elephant in the room and establish an effective E-Waste Management System, the decision makers must work at the grassroots – creating 'organised employment' for rag pickers and scrap dealers across the nation.

People employed in the unorganised sector who account for handling over 95% of the e-waste generated in the country aren’t adept in its proper collection, dismantling, recycling and disposal.

Lack of awareness

E-waste collected by the rag pickers is either sold to scrap dealers or dumped in water bodies and landfills. Mostly scrap dealers dismantle the e-waste releasing toxic emissions in the air, water and land, ultimately worsening the level of pollution.

The reason that neither rag pickers nor scrap dealers are skilled in the proper handling of e-waste is attributed to near-zero awareness about e-waste recycling and the fragmented nature of the unorganised sector they work in.

Nonetheless, the crude and manual collection of e-waste by rag pickers is still efficient than other means taken up by the tech-aided formal sector. The higher collection rate is essential to curb the threat of rising e-waste and therefore rag pickers should be led to the mainstream by creating sustainable 'Green Jobs' for them.

Conversion of informal processors into formalised dismantlers taking up a decentralised approach to recycling can strengthen the e-waste management system.

Whether it is a self-help group supported by an NGO, government authority enrolling rag pickers as waged workers, or a private organisation giving them employment for their job of waste management, initiation of 'rag pickers' as 'green workers' will not only address the unemployment situation but will also solve the mammoth problem of piling e-waste.

Policy revision and sustainable solution: The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change revised the E-waste (Management) Rules in 2016 for effective waste management and recycling.

Although the rules were further amended in 2017 and Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) was introduced yet the policy implantation at such a large scale is a herculean task to accomplish.

There must be an alternative system including waste collectors, rag pickers, second-hand dealers, repair shops, and e-commerce portal vendors along with the industry producers to create a closed loop of e-waste collection, recycling, and management.

India’s e-waste generation is going to cross 52 lakh tonne in 2020 and the future of a healthy nation seems depressing until stringent measures are taken to handle this e-waste.

Rag pickers and waste collectors working in unprotective environment without any safety measures need to be employed in the formal sector with a sustainable source of income.

The inclusion of the unorganised sector into a 'circular economy model' with a closed loop of production, consumption and re-use can pave the path of a safe, healthy and sustainable future.

(The writer is CEO, Deshwal Waste Management Pvt Ltd)

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