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Digital India could create a problem for Swacch Bharat

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As the Swachh Bharat mission completes its first year, an important aspect seems to have escaped the mission’s radar: E-waste, short for electronic waste. As technology advances and replacements are brought in, where do the old devices land up? Do the owners keep it? Maybe they sell it or donate it? Or they might junk it. The last one presents the problem called e-waste that looms large.

To understand how junking an electronic device poses a problem, a few stats may help. According to the site dosomething.org  although e-waste constitutes only 2% of the total waste in the USA, it accounts for 70% of its toxic waste! And that is just one side of the story. According to the STEP Initiative, globally up to 6 million tonnes of e-waste are unaccounted for i.e there is no record of how and where their disposal was effected!

Now consider India’s problem. In particular, two initiatives by the Central and State Governments have a strong link to the problem. One is the Digital India initiative of the Government of India. Second, is the distribution of – initially – television sets and more recently laptops to students by the Government of Tamil Nadu. Such practices are going on in other states as well. Schemes like the Digital India would not only require substantial infrastructure to network the country but also devices for people to benefit from it. The downstream problem of disposal of these devices (mobile phones, laptops, tablets etc.) once technology overtakes their capabilities is one that requires immediate and urgent thought if the country has to tackle the problem with any degree of effectiveness.

Let us examine, for example, mobile phones. The headline of this news article in Business Insider says, for the first time in 20 years, sales of mobile phones registered a drop. This was for the first quarter of 2015 compared against final quarter of 2014 – 53 million as against 62 million. Mind boggling numbers to say the least and if these numbers continue, around 200 million mobile phones may be sold in one year! With this in mind, let us turn our attention to another fact from dosomething.org. It says, by recycling 1 million cell phones approximately 16000 kg of copper, 350 kg of silver, 34 kg of gold and 15 kg of palladium can be recovered. Those numbers multiplied by 200 if all the cell phones sold in India in just one year are recycled. And that is just cell phones!

At this point, it is important to address an argument that may come to mind. One might say, the assumption that all of the 200 million phones are going to be junked is absurd and Indians have long had the habit of handing their phones down to others they know. This is true of course. However, can we deny that by now, most people have phones and we are increasingly becoming a society that refuses to accept hand me downs. With the spending power of the population increasing, the number of people wishing to change to the newest and greatest offering from any given manufacturer on a yearly basis is also increasing. Consequently, in a few years time even the people accepting hand me downs will have replacements available on their hands and the junk will start to grow. Exponentially at that!

The important question therefore is – is the country ready? One conversation between a customer and a shop representative of a leading multi brand retail chain dealing in mobile phones went along these lines:

Customer: I wish to change the battery of this phone please.

Representative: Sure, will cost you Rs.1000.

Customer: Ok, go ahead and change. What can I do with the old battery? Can I leave it with you?

Representative: You can if you want.

Customer:  What are you going to do with it?

Representative: Throw it in the dust bin.

Customer: What! You are not supposed to do so. In fact the manufacturer has indicated that it should not be thrown in a dust bin. [points out the sign]

Representative: What else can be done?

Customer: You can send it back to the manufacturer along with other similar products. They can then recycle it.

Representative: [stares at the customer in bewilderment for few seconds and then finally] We cannot do all that.

Customer: In that case, I will retain the battery with me till I am able to dispose it properly [settles the bill and walks out]

The above conversation was a personal experience of the writer. And, the battery continues to remain in his house. The important conclusion from the conversation was, the representative while adept at explaining the features of any given mobile phone in the shop was blissfully unaware of the e-waste problem. And that is where the problem needs to be addressed.

Unfortunately, in India, we have a habit of expecting the Government of the day to tackle problems like these. Sure, in a way the Government is responsible too. It can impose penalties on erring companies. Maybe the Prime Minister can allocate some time in his Maan-Ki-Baat to spread awareness of the problem.

However, why should companies not proactively lead the way in tackling the growing e-waste problem? Why give the space for a problem to crop up in the first place? Is it too much to ask 1 in 1000 advertisements to focus on recycling which could easily be a part of their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policy. Why not have their exclusive dealerships as drop off points of e-waste generated by customers? And why is not possible for multi brand retail firms to include in their policy – mandatory sensitization of their employees on the importance of recycling? Can they not also use their stores as drop off points for e-waste and co-ordinate with manufacturers to ensure recycling of used products?

Do these companies care? Do they realize that by doing business in the country they are also ethically responsible for giving back to the society that gave them the space? The questions are endless but it is high time that, for the good of the country, we begin answering at least the basic ones.

@prathapkrishnan

Post-Script:

As this article was being written, the writer found out that the Dept of Information Technology, India has started an “Awareness Programme on Environmental Hazards of Electronic Waste under ‘Digital India Initiative’”. Sincerest hopes that it takes off.

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