Chennai: In India, cars driven for 15-20 years until they can no longer be cajoled into life often land at scrap dealers, to be dismantled and their innards reused with little regard for the environment. An experiment is in the works just outside Chennai to tweak this picture.
As India’s annual car sales climb at a 30% clip to touch 2.5 million in 2010-11, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (Siam), as people upgrade from hatchbacks to sedans, and as accidents rise and loan defaults soar, more cars are entering scrapyards where engine oil leaches into the ground and lead poisoning lurks as batteries are taken apart.
A recycling unit launched on Tuesday 55km outside Chennai, close to the local factories of foreign auto makers including Ford Motor Co. and the Renault-Nissan alliance, may offer a cleaner and greener solution for the reuse or disposal of automotive parts. The 340-acre facility to the south-west of Chennai, in Oragadam, is a creation of Siam and the ministry of heavy industries that will dismantle cars that are no longer road-worthy.
The compact unit currently working on 100 two-wheelers and 25 four-wheelers will be run primarily on manual labour, unlike heavily automated recycling centres abroad, Siam Recycling Group chairman N.S. Mohan Ram said.
Over three months, workers will dismantle each car and two-wheeler, and after removing parts that can be reused or recycled, and other parts such as glass and fabric that must go into landfills, large parts will be compressed by a hydraulic press to occupy smaller spaces.
“There are strict regulations worldwide on the end of life of vehicles,” said K.K. Gandhi, executive director (technical), Siam. “In India, vehicles are bought by kabadiwallahs (scrap dealers) in areas like Mayapuri in Delhi. They dismantle the vehicle, take away the bearings, electrical parts, body parts, to recycle. The whole system is very unhygienic and can handle only low volumes.”
Organized measures: The inauguration of an auto recycling unit at Oragadam, near Chennai, on Tuesday. Kumar/Mint
S.S. Chawla, 30, entered his father’s 25-year-old scrap business in Mayapuri about a decade ago. The west Delhi recycling hub grabbed headlines last year following the death of a scrapyard worker from exposure to radiation from junked equipment containing nuclear material.
While there may be little adherence to environmental norms, it is undeniable that he and other scrap dealers are a valuable and cheap source of replacement for rural car owners and taxi operators who cannot afford a Rs4,000 tyre to replace a worn-out wheel. Many car owners head to this junkyard heaven to pick a cheaper tyre ripped off from a partially damaged vehicle for Rs800-1,000.
“There are no norms for taxing old and polluting cars,” said Kumar Kandaswami, an automotive industry specialist at consultancy Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India Pvt. Ltd. “So there’s no motivation for people to retire their cars. A new car run in Chennai may wind up in Tuticorin (500km away) after a few years.”
Indeed, business and competition has picked up, said Chawla, as have piles of garbage generated from unusable auto parts such as glass components and plastic innards.
Chennai’s Mayapuri lies to the north-west of the city, in Pudupet. The air here reeks of automotive fluids. The soil is a shimmering dark gray mix of grease and shattered glass. Many of Pudupet’s scrap shops that line every inch of its streets are stuffed with car tyres, doors, mirrors, bumpers and other tubular and metal components. The fast-growing loot comes from financiers auctioning vehicles confiscated from defaulting borrowers, insurance companies and even the forest department that finds orphaned vehicles.
But even as the resale of automotive parts may seem a logical extension of the pervasive Indian habit of reusing things, it inadvertently involves violation of environmental norms, say ecological experts.
“There is always the danger of overstepping that line by using products that may not be fit enough to be used,” said Priti Mahesh, project manager with Delhi-based environmental not-for-profit Toxics Link.
Amid increasing labour costs to repair dented bumpers and doors defaced by accidents, the rising stock of unblemished doors recovered from vehicles brought to Chennai and Delhi’s scrap dealers finds several takers.
Still, a soaring mountain of metal spares—70% versus 30% of total scrap volumes 20 years ago, according to several Pudupet traders—don’t find buyers and are sold by weight at a profit given rising aluminium, steel and copper prices.
The rise in melting and reuse of such parts by the unorganized sector, which could be lethal to air and water in the surrounding areas, offers a compelling reason for ecologically cleaner measures to recycle automotive parts.
“Usually, the informal sector cuts corners as much as possible, but recovery efficiency is much lower and you may be losing a lot of resources that can be recycled,” said Toxics Link’s Mahesh. “There is a need for an organized sector effort to reuse parts of cars or two-wheelers with adherence to environmental norms.”
Amritha Venketakrishnan contributed to this story.