The e-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, notified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, have the potential to turn a growing problem into a development opportunity. With almost a year to go before the rules take effect, there is enough time to create the necessary infrastructure for collection, dismantling, and recycling of electronic waste. The focus must be on sincere and efficient implementation. Only decisive action can eliminate the scandalous pollution and health costs associated with India’s hazardous waste recycling industry. If India can achieve a transformation, it will be creating a whole new employment sector that provides good wages and working conditions for tens of thousands. The legacy response of the States to even the basic law on urban waste, the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, has been one of indifference; many cities continue to simply burn the garbage or dump it in lakes. With the emphasis now on segregation of waste at source and recovery of materials, it should be feasible to implement both sets of rules efficiently. A welcome feature of the new e-waste rules is the emphasis on extended producer responsibility. In other words, producers must take responsibility for the disposal of end-of-life products. For this provision to work, they must ensure that consumers who sell scrap get some form of financial incentive.
The e-waste rules, which derive from those pertaining to hazardous waste, are scheduled to come into force on May 1, 2012. Sound as they are, the task of scientifically disposing of a few hundred thousand tonnes of trash electronics annually depends heavily on a system of oversight by State Pollution Control Boards. Unfortunately, most PCBs remain unaccountable and often lack the resources for active enforcement. It must be pointed out that, although agencies handling e-waste must obtain environmental clearances and be authorised and registered by the PCBs even under the Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008, there has been little practical impact. Over 95 per cent of electronic waste is collected and recycled by the informal sector. The way forward is for the PCBs to be made accountable for enforcement of the e-waste rules, and the levy of penalties under environmental laws. Clearly, the first order priority is to create a system that will absorb the 80,000-strong workforce in the informal sector into the proposed scheme for scientific recycling. Facilities must be created to upgrade the skills of these workers through training and their occupational health must be ensured.