Before gadget gluttony and fast fashion became commonplace enough to seem normal, sustainability was more than a concept to measure and flaunt. It was a way of life in our parents’ generation—in a country of Rafu masters and Jugaad innovation. Many millennials in India have grown up seeing their mothers use the white-red Sumeet mixer, black-gold Usha sewing machine among other appliances for decades and even witnessed them reusing the same plastic bags for years, neatly folding it under the mattress after every use.
Many of us remember growing up wearing hand-me-downs from elder cousins, which were later turned into mops in homes. And so, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the LiFE or Lifestyle for Environment movement in June—a concept that he said is borrowed from the past and focuses on the future—it took many Indians who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s a blink to grasp what he meant.
This movement of environmental consciousness, among other things, is a quiet refusal to be part of the ‘use and throw’ economy that was ushered in when the white goods (large electrical appliances) industry discovered that shorter lifespan of their products could mean better business. Once the design of ‘planned obsolescence’ was normalised in the hot big-tech sector, and ‘durability’ ceased to be a virtue in the age of upgrades, other industries followed suit.
How is this obsolescence perpetuated? When the cost of replacing a spare part is both expensive and cumbersome compared to the price and ease of buying a new gadget, consumers are compelled to replace or ‘upgrade’ the gadget. Other times, such as in the case of internet-connected devices, manufacturers plan a shorter life for the devices because their newer software upgrades are not designed to run on older devices. Third, tech ‘upgrades’ of all sorts are made to be seen as ‘aspirational’ statements, without which impressionable youth and status-conscious adults feel outdated.
Result: Premature death of devices. Consumers are locked out of their gadgets. The mom-and-pop ‘handymen’ are locked out of the repair ecosystem, significantly affecting the employment of millions and access of consumers to repair outlets. Mountains of e-waste pile up, which are as much a threat to the environment as they are to the health of their handlers, many of whom are concentrated in developing countries like India. It may not be an over-statement to call that work ‘hi-tech junk scavenging’, where vulnerable people are sifting and processing the waste of the privileged without knowing that it could cause them cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption among other health problems.
So the ‘right to repair’ movement—which has gone global—is a reaction to all the above where environmentalists, repair-enthusiasts, technicians, consumers, governments, regulators, and world leaders have converged to seek maintenance rights of gadgets to enhance their life span, reduce waste output, carbon footprint and recycle more. As such, it is timely that the government announced its intent recently to codify the right to repair movement into law, while locating it within PM Modi’s LiFE Movement.
India, the second-largest mobile-phone-using country globally, has more phone devices than people. The country’s e-waste output is growing at over 30 per cent year on year, and stood at over 10 lakh tonnes in 2019-20, according to government data, comparable to about one lakh six-wheeled truckloads of waste. This ‘tsunami’ of e-waste India is generating is the third largest in volume globally and growing at a rate ten times faster than its plastic waste output.
The most alarming aspect of e-waste is that less than a quarter of it is being processed. The remaining, with its menu of hazardous metals can contaminate soil, air, water, posing significant risk to human health by entering the food chain. This is when half of India’s households are stuck with less than five-year-old devices and white goods where their owners are finding repair costs too expensive, as per a recent Local Circles survey. The problem is too complex for any one stakeholder—the government, industry, or citizens—to address alone.
What India needs to do
Now that India is making its own laws in the space, the country should adopt ‘a whole of the government’ approach, and solve multiple issues through the repairing policies—honouring the moral and legal rights of consumers, generating low-skill employment, reducing the total waste output to save the environment, and ensuring conditions that workers processing discarded smartphones are exposed to minimum health risks.
While the department of consumer affairs is rightly leading from the front on restoring legal rights of repair to consumers, the finance ministry can learn from Sweden to give tax breaks and other financial incentives to consumers for repair, and companies to increase the life-span of gadgets they make. NITI Aayog can learn from France’s Repairability Index to create a similar one that can inform consumers how repairable their gadgets are before they buy it. The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship can focus on forging pacts between white good companies and repair workforce to encourage more start-up chains that can deliver on complicated repairs of devices while bringing the unorganised sector of repair workforce into the formal sector.
The government’s e-marketplace GEM can incentivise public procurement from players who ensure increased reparability. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology can brainstorm with manufacturers of devices on innovative ways to break free of the monopoly model of maintenance.
Makers of gadgets, though rattled by adverse business prospects, are realising that the centre of gravity of public opinion is shifting on repairing rights. And even though consumers and makers of gadgets are battling from opposite sides of the fence on repairing, both share one home—planet earth. What they also share is their love for gadgets. And in their hearts, both sides would agree that if we love our gadgets, we must let them live longer.
Soma Das is an author, former business journalist, and senior advisor to Chase India.
Manash Kalita Neog is co-founder of Chase India, a public policy research and advisory firm.
Views are personal.