India's e-waste recycling "markets" are toxic nightmares filled with child laborers

Millions of tons of e-waste -- much of it from rich countries like Australia -- are recycled in India, in "markets" with terrible, dangerous working conditions and equally awful environmental controls.

India passed comprehensive e-waste recycling regulations in 2016, but they are not well enforced. Researchers from the UNSW report from Seelampur and Mandoli, two slums outside of Delhi, where the kabadiwalas (also called raddiwalas) work to dismantle truckloads of e-waste that are dumped there each day.

The workers of Seelampur and Mandoli, many of them children, lack even the most basic safety equipment: many work without goggles, masks, gloves, or work-shoes, and work with unsuitable and primitive tools to remove precious metals and component from the guts of appliances, phones and other electronics.

Components that can't be removed by hand are extracted through acid-immersion and open-air incineration, with the kinds of awful environmental and human consequences you'd expect.

The pay runs around ₹200-800/day ($3-11), with children commanding the lowest salaries.

Incidentally, while moving around Seelampur we were shocked to see children playing in drains clogged with dumped waste. During the drier months drains can catch fire, often deliberately lit to reduce waste accumulation.

After our tour of Seelampur we visited Mandoli, a region near Delhi where we were told e-waste burning takes place.

When we arrived and asked about e-waste recycling we were initially met with denials that such places exist.

But after some persistence we were directed along narrow, rutted laneways to an industrial area flanked by fortified buildings with large locked metal doors and peephole slots not dissimilar to a prison.

We arranged entry to one of these units. Among the swirling clouds of thick, acrid smoke, four or so women were burning electrical cables over a coal fire to extract copper and other metals.

Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India [Miles Park and Alankrita Soni/The Conversation]

(Image: Alankrita Soni)