The Plight of Electronics Refurbishers in India

July 1st, 2011

In 2009, SVTC traveled to India to work with Chintan, a group in Delhi working on the electronic waste (e-waste) issue. Together we produced the film, Citizens at Risk. In the following blog series we will be updating you on the progress of the work to work with informal recyclers to improve working conditions and legalize their operations. Below is a blog authored by Bharati Chaturvedi, Executive Director, of Chintan.

It is common sense that you get more brownie points for repairing something and using it before sending it off for recycling. In the world of e-waste recycling, such life-extenders are known as refurbishers.

Not surprisingly, in India, with a robust culture of re-use, thousands of people, often poor and with nothing more than sheer skill, take to refurbishing electronics. You can see that in Delhi’s famous Kabari Bazar, or scrap market. Here, every Sunday, from 6 in the morning till about 10, before the sun gets too hot to work, hundreds of vendors sell repaired electronic goods. These include refurbished mobile phones, TV’s, scratched but cleaned CDs and repaired household appliances.

The clients here are also less wealthy, and for them, being able to acquire a mobile phone for Rs. 1000 ($22 USD) (a new, inexpensive Nokia costs over a 100 USD) is key to their remaining connected with their families and friends. Sounds like a win-win? Not to the government.

For over 3 years now, the clients and the sellers of the Kabari Bazaar have no place to set up their market. They were thrown out of the patch they had used every Sunday, for decades, at the foot of the majestic Red Fort. It was converted into a grassy, green, gated, lawn. No body uses it now, save a few morning walkers.

The Bazar was later shifted to a dreary sliver near a sports stadium. When preparations for the Commonwealth Games of October 2010 began, they lost this space too. Instead, they were given permission to set up shop next to a crematorium. This was not acceptable, because it offended the refurbishers’ religious sentiments. Organized as the Hawker’s Welfare Association, their Secretary, Asif Dehlvi, wrote a letter to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. He explained how hard it was for anyone to work when funeral processions went by. He explained how vendors starved each Sunday because religion prohibited them from eating before they bathed, if they had visited a crematorium. He asked for an alternative space. He still hasn’t got one.

What is going on here? How is Delhi promoting safe jobs in e-waste recycling? It isn’t.

E-waste is understood as a serious problem now and it is clear that it must be recycled carefully and safely. But plans and land use in Delhi and similar big cities around it are unable to recognize the role of players like these refurbishers. They don’t see them as people who save the city space in landfills or prolong the useful life of precious resources. Unfortunately, they see them as squatters, grabbing space to sell un-glamourous goods.

Branded, formal shops are much more appealing because they don’t point to the uncomfortable idea of India’s capital city as a place partly run by the poor. It just doesn’t run well with the idea of converting India’s key cities into global investment sites. That’s why, there is no official response to Asif Dehlvi and his colleagues for their request for space to set up a market where small venders can operate. That’s why they are seen as intruders in their own city.

But lessons from Bangalore suggest this idea is quite wrong. Bangalore is popularly referred to as India’s Silicon Valley. Dozens of software companies have set up offices there?

But this form of global investment has not stopped the entrepreneurship of the region’s informal sector. Instead, e-waste dismantlers have formed an association and have been given the permission to dismantle e-waste, as well as trade in it.

Bangalore and Delhi both offer lessons to the rest of India. Both of them are on the international travel route, and both are wealthy cities. But Bangalore understands the need for handling e-waste challenges inclusivel, while Delhi believes there is no place for the informal sector, even if it is the key to reuse.