Why e-waste processing is a dangerous business

“Ye chot lagna hamare liye hai normal (‘getting hurt is normal for us’).

This is the most common response we received whenever workers were asked about injuries.

About 17% of workers reported having suffered at least one injury in the two weeks preceding the survey. These were serious injuries in the form of deep cuts. However, wounds that seemed deep to us were “normal” for them.

The immediate question that intrigued us was: what does this “normalization” of injuries reflect? The answer to this question lies in understanding who these workers are and what type of work they are engaged in.

They are workers whose survival depends on dealing with electrical and electronic waste (e-waste), a by-product of our endless and ever-growing consumer culture fueled by the capitalist mode of development. While one part of society benefits from this unchecked technological advance, the other bears disproportionately the brunt of its darker side; i.e. electronic waste.

Who is this other section? Unsurprisingly, it is the same group of people who, for decades, have made a living by treating this or that type of waste. Their bodies are considered ‘unclean/dirty’, thus, waste being a dirty/dirty object, should be handled by these ‘dirty bodies’ in situations and at costs which the privileged find unacceptable to themselves.

These privileged people, who benefit from the process that produces such waste, make laws/policies against it but continue to profit from it.

A similar process of “pain normalization” has been reported among female farm workers in Bihar also, who toil in precarious conditions for their subsistence.

This piece is the product of our doctoral fieldwork conducted in the slums of a city in a southern Indian state. The study site is located in the heart of the city. Three decades ago, this region was known for processing leather, with members of the ‘lower’ castes and the Muslim community struggling with this ‘dirty’ work. Today, the place is famous for its waste treatment activities, but the workers continue to belong to similar backgrounds.

Interestingly, ‘development’ caused a boom in the IT sector for one class or group of society, while for workers it simply meant a shift from a ‘dirty’ and precarious form of work. to another. These workers, with little education, work tirelessly in cramped units for long hours (even 12 hours sometimes) without any safety equipment, to process electronic waste, often with injured body parts.

“You see, I had this cut in the morning. It will heal on its own; I don’t do anything for this type of injury. Now I’m used to these kinds of injuries,” a 19-year-old migrant worker tells us in pointing his heel.

The urban primary health center (UPHC) appears to them to be “socially inaccessible”; meaning that although it is physically accessible, workers cannot seek care there, with UPHC’s functional schedules being a significant impediment, among others.

Interestingly, there are many private clinics and a few charity clinics in the area, most of which remain functional all day and late into the night. However, they only provide curative care. The only preventative injury care provided by these clinics is the frequent injections of TT (for tetanus) which many workers reported receiving once every two months.

Despite their free availability at public health centers, workers choose to get their injections from charity/private clinics, paying for them. Every time they visit a healthcare provider, they end up paying an amount ranging from Rs 30 to 200. Hence, they try to manage it on their own.

These workers are unable to take a day off (unless it is an extremely serious injury) because their families survive on daily earnings. Most of them are self-employed and therefore have no one else to rely on. It is this social marginalization that leads workers to accept most injuries as “normal” and, for those deemed serious enough, to seek out costly and irrational private clinics at great expense.

Several groups have repeatedly raised the issue of state support for the self-employed. However, in this case, the State does not even recognize them as “workers”, although its report, the E-Waste Inventorying for Telangana State mentions several times that more than 90% of e-waste is treated in the unorganized sector.

What makes matters worse is that the government requires all e-waste treatment to be done by formal recycling units who, in reality, do not find this viable. Thus, any initiative to “improve” the situation must take into account the precariousness of employment for workers.

These workers make cities sustainable and contribute to the economy by subsidizing the otherwise exorbitant disposal of e-waste, to the detriment of their health. But who takes care of them? It is in this context that one must understand why “wounds” are normal for them.

Injuries, here, reflect more than a physical insult to bodily tissue; rather, it symbolizes the daily struggle of these workers to earn a living and the utter neglect of society as a whole in this regard, even as we reap the benefits.

Sapna Mishra is an Assistant Professor in the School of Development at Azim Premji University. Email: sapna.mishra@apu.edu.in

Rakhal Gaitonde is a professor at the Achutha Menon Center for Health Sciences Studies and the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Science and Technology. Email: Rakhal.gaitonde@sctimst.ac.in

Michael A. Bynum