Exactly how environment-friendly are Delhi’s e-rickshaws?

Not very.

WrittenBy:Sumedha Mittal
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In August 2010, as Delhi was getting a makeover in preparation for the 19th Commonwealth Games, Sheila Dikshit bedecked the city’s thoroughfares in the red and green colours of the then fashionable e-rickshaw, which she described as a “needed effort” towards making Delhi a “pollution-free zone”. Four years later Dikshit’s successor as chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, vowed to clean up Delhi’s air, by, in no small part, expanding its e-rickshaw fleet. The city is now estimated to be serviced by lakhs of e-rickshaws – the Delhi Economic Survey 2021-22 gives two numbers, 10,33,000 and 99,552 – up from just 25 in 2010. And Kejriwal continues to market the e-rickshaw as a key antidote to Delhi’s polluted air, of which vehicular traffic is the second largest source. His administration is pushing to expand the e-rickshaw network by subsidising its purchase and introducing it to the Electric Vehicle Policy as one of the nine key steps to tackle pollution.

The e-rickshaw certainly doesn’t whirr out pollutants like vehicles running on fossil fuels, but is it really as green as it is made out to be?

Inside an e-rickshaw

Most of Delhi’s e-rickshaws run on four rechargeable lead-acid batteries, each containing 20 kg lead and 10 kg sulphuric acid. The batteries last six-eight months, according to e-rickshaw drivers, after which they are sold to scrap dealers, who in turn send them to recycling factories. Because lead can be recycled almost indefinitely without degrading its quality, the recycled battery is as good as a new one. This is why, according to the International Lead Association, more lead is now produced by recycling than mining. 

If its recycling is not done immaculately, however, the lead-acid battery can become a source of severe pollution at every step of the process, as a study published by WHO pointed out in 2017. 

The recycling process starts with transportation and storage. The sulphuric acid solution is drained out before the batteries are sent for recycling, but sometimes the solution is carelessly dumped on open ground near the factories or leaks out of damaged batteries. The solution is acidic and contains lead and carelessly throwing it contaminates the soil and water bodies. 

Next, the batteries are dismantled to separate components made of lead and plastic. If done manually, this process releases lead particles and lead oxide, contaminating air, soil and water, and potentially harming the workers. 

The next step is smelting and refining lead in a furnace. If the furnace is open or has inadequate ventilation, it can generate heavy doses of lead fumes which are hazardous to human health and contaminate the soil. Indeed, lead poisoning from inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact is quite common among workers in the lead recycling industry. Informal recycling units in particular don’t follow the prescribed safety procedures and protocols. In 2016, NGOs Green Cross Switzerland and Pure Earth identified backyard recycling of lead-acid batteries as the chief source of chemical pollution in the world’s poorer nations which leads to millions of deaths every year.

India sought to tackle the hazardous ramifications of recycling lead-acid batteries by bringing the Batteries Management and Handling Rules in 2001. The rules, amended in 2010, require all manufacturers and importers of lead-acid batteries to establish facilities to collect exhausted batteries, send them to registered recyclers, and buy recycled lead only from registered recyclers. The consumers are mandated to return used batteries to these collection centres alone. 

In August this year, the environment ministry replaced the 2001 rules with Battery Waste Management Rules 2022. “The primary difference is that the new legislation covers all sorts of batteries, lithium-ion, button-cell and your household batteries, whereas the previous law was only about lead-acid batteries,” said Priti Mahesh, chief programme coordinator at environmental NGO Toxics Link. “That is a big change but as far as handling and recycling of lead-acid batteries is concerned, there are no major changes. Recycling of lead-acid batteries is still based on the principle of extended producer’s responsibility.”

In Delhi, the Kejriwal government is aggressively pushing its Electric Vehicle Policy 2022 whose main objective is to clean Delhi’s air quality by bringing down emissions from vehicles. 

Since the policy was introduced earlier this year, sales of electric vehicles have risen. The city saw electric vehicle sales grow by 69 percent in October compared to the previous month, the Indian Express reported, with e-rickshaws accounting for 34 percent of the inventory. But if e-rickshaw batteries aren’t recycled properly, the purpose of having the policy is undermined. Not least because the e-rickshaw generates more battery waste. It takes four batteries that last six-eight months, whereas non-electric vehicles usually run on a single battery with a lifespan of two years and more.

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To get a sense of how Delhi deals with used e-rickshaw batteries, we tracked their journey from consumers to recycling units.

Several e-rickshaw drivers we spoke with didn’t know they were legally required to sell their used batteries to a registered dealer. “We sell our used batteries to whoever gives us more money,” said Sunil Kumar, who has been driving an e-rickshaw for five years. 

Much of the e-rickshaw battery waste ends up in Gokhale Market, the epicentre of the battery business in central Delhi crowded by both registered vendors and scrap dealers. 

Manpreet Singh of Surya Battery, a registered dealer, sells mostly lead-acid batteries for e-rickshaws. “Because it has a lot of scope. The e-rickshaw market in Delhi is booming,” he explained. 

He sells hundreds of batteries a month, Singh said, but doesn’t like dealing with used batteries. “We do have the option of selling back used batteries to Exide or Amaron and earning some profit but we don’t,” he said. “Firstly, we do not have much space to store them. Secondly, e-rickshaw drivers do not sell to us. We’ll give them Rs 2,500 for a used battery at best, whereas a scrap dealer will give them Rs 2,750.” 

Not far from Surya Battery is Baldev Nath’s scrap dealership. He buys 20-40 batteries a day from e-rickshaw drivers and sells them on to informal recycling units in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, like most scrap dealers we spoke with in Gokhale Market. 

“Battery manufacturers don’t come to us to buy used batteries,” Nath said. “Why would they?” 

Here, then, is the leakage in the recycling process of lead-acid batteries, Mahesh of Toxics Link pointed out. 

“In Delhi, two problems of the dealers are space and money,” she explained. “To collect used batteries from dealers the company’s people will come once a month and give them some credit points on their next order. But people from the informal sector pay cash, even to collect a single battery. As the batteries are hazardous and there is a lack of space, the dealers don't want to keep piling them up. This is why most batteries end up in informal recycling units. This problem is easy for the companies to fix, they have to merely tie up with their own dealer robustly to take used batteries back. But in India corporations don’t take action until the government is sitting on their heads. So far, no action has been taken against the companies which are not responsibly collecting the batteries back.”

State pollution control boards are mandated by the Battery Management and Handling Rules 2001 to keep track of used batteries and submit period reports to the Central Pollution Control Board. An analysis of these reports shows that Delhi maintained records for just a couple of the past 11 years - 2017-18 and 2020-21 - and even those are not robust. In 2017-18 the state did not collect data from battery assemblers and reconditioners, whereas the 2020-21 record is missing data from manufacturers.

The data, therefore, is too insufficient and irregular to draw any conclusion.

Source: Central Pollution Control Board and Delhi Pollution Control Board

The bulk of the battery waste from Gokhale Market goes to informal recycling units, like the ones in Khairpur village of Haryana. The village, barely 2 km over the border from Delhi, has six operational recycling factories of lead-acid batteries. The one we visited was established over 12 years ago. It’s covered in a thick layer of lead dust, and stinks of sulphuric acid. The factory has six furnaces that run nearly 16 hours a day and recycle around 3,000 kg lead daily. None of the furnaces has a pollution control device. 

The factory was manned by eight workers when we visited, none of whom wore any safety gear, save for flimsy plastic shoe covers. They dismantle the batteries with bare hands and discard the acid-filled components in the open. Not surprisingly, the soil around the factories is contained with lead and acid. 

“Setting up this factory cost us Rs one crore. Had we followed all the regulations and installed all the required technology, it would have cost us Rs 20-30 crore. Too expensive,” the owner said.

Has his factory ever been acted against for operating in violation of the regulations? “This factory is not illegal,” the owner replied. “We have all the clearances from the pollution control board, district planning, no objection certificate for land and GST licence.” 

“The regulatory framework clearly says the state pollution board has to monitor these recycling units and ensure they are causing no damage to the environment. But clearly there is no strict monitoring by them. If there’s no difference between informal and formal sectors then the whole debate about proper recycling is meaningless,” said Mahesh of Toxics Link, which conducted a survey of lead-acid battery recycling industry in Delhi, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh and found many factories that claimed to have formal licences “carried out operations which were not very different from the informal sector”.

The survey also found that much of Delhi’s battery waste ends up in informal recycling factories on the outskirts of the city. “If you are deploying an EV policy, there should be an understanding that it will mean the generation of more battery waste,” Mahesh argued. “And measures should have been put in place beforehand to tackle the waste.”

The latest solution the Delhi government has come up with is banning lead-acid batteries. In a September 1 order, the Delhi Transport Authority mandated e-rickshaws and e-carts to put in lithium-ion batteries instead, and declared that e-rickshaws with lead-acid batteries would no longer be registered. The order was challenged by an e-rickshaw driver but the Delhi High Court refused to entertain the plea. The court said that traditional batteries were dangerous and that it was time to adopt new technology, Live Law reported

“The problem with lead-acid batteries is how they are collected and recycled. The same applies to lithium-ion batteries,” Mahesh noted. “So, what is the difference?”

Pictures by Sumedha Mittal.

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