A battery of thoughts

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It is important for citizens to be responsible and alert about their environment. But the government must also make it easy for citizens to follow rules, says G. Venkatesh, talking specifically about the disposal of e-waste in India.

Igot my Acer laptop from Sweden to Mumbai for a battery replacement. Having replaced the battery, I enquired at the shop in Vashi (in New Mumbai), whether the shop had some kind of system whereby electronic waste (in this case, the used battery) could be given to them by customers who make purchases at the shop, for safe and responsible delivery to recycling units. The salesman told me, ‘Nahin Sir, aisa tho kuch bhi nahin hain.’ (No Sir, there is nothing like that.) I then asked them what is generally done to e-waste by the citizens of New Mumbai. He responded, ‘Pata nahin…aise hi phekh dete honge.’(I do not know. They may just be throwing them away).

I asked around and a friend told me that despite a lot of claims made to the contrary, the situation leaves a lot to be desired. Another friend provided me with some contacts on WhatsApp to two e-waste recycling centres. One of these was based in western Mumbai. I called up this office and was told that I could come over with my e-waste across the city to the western suburbs and hand it over there. The respondent was kind enough also to tell me that I could also visit a particular shopping mall in Thane (to the north of Mumbai city), and drop off the e-waste at a collection point there.

Being responsible
Well, I thought I need not have made these enquiries in the first place. I was on vacation and was spending time with my parents in New Mumbai, watching cricket and movies, chatting and helping out with daily chores. But I teach industrial ecology and sustainable development back in Sweden and I need to practise what I preach and teach…even if that would mean going a little out of the way to accomplish. ‘Going out of the way’….this started niggling me. Why must responsible citizens be made to go out of the way to do something which is beneficial for the hoi polloi and the environment? If the government wants citizens to be responsible, it has to create the infrastructures to enable them to do so.

Well, we will come back to this later…I was not happy with the status quo and decided to take the used battery and an old cellphone (not smartphone) back with me to Sweden where I could easily dispose it off as electronic waste at dedicated centres, and return home with a clear conscience, having given it a responsible and decent ‘end-of-life.’ I remember having done this to an old laptop I had with me in New Mumbai for a long time, at an electronics/home appliances shop in Norway two years ago, to the delight and glee of the shop attendant.

The government’s role
Why do things seem so difficult in big cities in India? So many things which are so well entrenched and maintained and sustained and more importantly, respected and appreciated by the citizens, in the northern European countries? Scale is surely not an issue. Governments ought to set up a string of dedicated collection centres for different types of e-wastes (rather, e-recyclables or e-reusables). The status quo does not make any sense anymore. One may say – Well, Norway and Sweden are small countries and all this is much more easily manageable there. Really? And you also talk about scale? Where would the scale effect be a stronger factor? In cities with 10 million to 20 million people or countries which are much larger than these cities in terms of surface area, but house less than 10 million each?

‘Swadeshi’ is fine. Or rather only the good aspects of it. If there is muck and inefficiency in my country, I do not want to label that ‘swadeshi’ and hold on to it! Mahatma Gandhi preached ‘swadeshi’, yes. But he also preached many other things as part of ‘swadeshi’! Do we include all those when we use this word time and again? But what if we learn from the western nations and seek their help to set up new systems, maintain, manage and sustain them?

I am sure several thousands of tonnes of metallic recyclables/reusables may have languished in dumping grounds and gutters (choking sewer pipes and causing familiar trans-systemic challenges in the monsoon months) in the past, and am certain that this still happens all over the country. The need of rag-pickers is always posited as a convenient excuse for not making it easier for responsible citizens to ensure that e-wastes are given the right end-of-life treatment – recycling in other words. You cannot tell a responsible citizen, ‘So you are responsible, right? And you do not mind going the extra mile to hand over your e-waste to responsible collection units? Then, just go 25 kilometres from here and you will find a recycling centre where you can drop off the waste’. Here it is not the extra mile per se, but 17 extra miles! In a densely populated city like Mumbai/New Mumbai, one must not be made to go through all this trouble!

People want to, if awareness is created, be more responsible. Governments need to make it easier for them. In the fast-paced, stressful lives which people lead, for instance, in Mumbai city (which unlike the national capital, is not automobile-dependent, and expects the vast majority of the population to tune their day to train and bus timetables), citizens will appreciate a little ease in this regard. Will the Swachh Bharat movement or the scores of ‘Swachh Urban movements’ we read about, actually accomplish something substantial, or just end up in a whimper?

We, who live and work abroad and visit India to meet parents and friends, are proud of our heritage. We feel pained when we are back home, to see that things are not what they could be or should be. We wish to help. In whatever way we can…to take all that is great in the western world, and incorporate it into the great aspects of Swadeshi which need to be preserved. Our anguish may please be understood.


G-Venkatesh

G. Venkatesh

G. Venkatesh is Senior Lecturer, Department of Engineering and Chemical Sciences, Faculty of Health, Science and Technology, Karlstad University, Sweden. He is also a freelance writer for several magazines around the world.

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