NGT order on central monitoring good; producer responsibility must encourage partnering with informal waste-processors
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) lamenting the state of management of electronic waste (e-waste) in the country, saying that the current situation makes it appear that “violation of environmental law is not the priority”, should serve as a wake-up call to the authorities. The tribunal observed that there were “huge gaps” in compliance, with the State Pollution Control Boards and local authorities having failed to implement the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016. It was hearing three cases centred on the enforcement of the extended producer responsibility (EPR) as envisioned in the policy as also other aspects such as collection, dismantling, safe storage, etc. One of the three cases was based on a report by The Indian Express on 5,000 illegal e-waste processing units operating within and in the periphery of the national capital; while the Delhi and Uttar Pradesh pollution authorities acted in the matter of the illegal e-waste processing units by ordering the closure of many such units, they have barely made a dent. But what really spells out how poor India’s e-waste watch has been, is the fact that as per data with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), while e-waste generation had shot up from 7.7 lakh tonnes in 2017-18 to 10.14 lakh tonnes in 2018-19, merely a fifth of the waste generated in 2018-19 was dismantled that year. Indeed, the actual collection under EPR was merely half of the target.
Against such a backdrop, the NGT did well to vest significant monitoring authority with the CPCB with regards to the implementation of the policy on controlling e-waste; the tribunal has directed the CPCB to update e-waste status periodically (at least once every six months) and issue directions to the state authorities. The central body has also been tasked with coming up with compliance steps to reduce the use of hazardous substances and review and update siting norms for e-waste within three months. State pollution control boards have been tasked with monitoring hot-spots.
With impetus from the NGT directions, the authorities will likely step up efforts to control the problem. The tribunal was rightly moved by the unsafe conditions in which poor workers in the informal sector handle e-waste disposal, but shutting down illegal processing units is hardly the answer since it means loss of livelihood and cessation of economic activity; instead, if training, equipping and safety is incorporated into the producer responsibility agreements, whereby the producer of electronic goods partner such enterprises to fulfil their responsibility, it would be a far more fruitful method of controlling e-waste. The imperative for curbing generation and recycling should be clear to the authorities—against the official estimate of 1 million tonnes of e-waste produced in India, some observers of the sector peg the actual generation to be already over 3 million and project it to cross 5 million by the end of this year; India is already the third-largest producer of e-waste and is a major importer, too. Unless it works efficiently on recycling—with China seeking near-exclusive control of rare earth elements that are critical for the electronics industry, this has become even a strategic requirement—India may end up losing on two counts, the management of waste and the resulting effects on the environment and the formalisation of the waste processing industry to get better value from e-waste.