‘We can’t throw things away like rich people’: New life for electronic scrap at Indian village fair

05 February 2024 - 13:43
By Avijit Ghosh
A seller at a stall in a makeshift market for old electronics and household products during 'Bhanga Mela' (fair of scrap articles) in South Bishnupur, West Bengal, India.
Image: AVIJIT GHOSH/Reuters A seller at a stall in a makeshift market for old electronics and household products during 'Bhanga Mela' (fair of scrap articles) in South Bishnupur, West Bengal, India.

Thousands of villagers in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal flock to a winter e-waste fair ever year, hoping to buy used phones, laptops and household electronic goods for bargain prices.

Samar Halder, a 63-year-old farmer, bought a used phone for 1,700 rupees R388 for his grandson from the “Bhanga Mela” (fair of scrap articles), as the fair is called, in Mathurapur, about 65km south of the state capital Kolkata.

“He will use it to study,” Halder said. “I sold crops worth 1,750 [rupees], came with it and bought the phone to give him as a gift. I hope it will work.”

India's society is undergoing rapid digital transformation but the benefits are not equally shared. Access to technology remains out of the reach of people in large parts of rural areas, where most of the world's most populous country lives.

The fair offers used gadgets and household goods at far reduced costs to new ones and provides an avenue for abandoned items to be reused and recycled.

On average, the price of a new smartphone in India is nearly 25,000 rupees (R5,700), up from 16,000-17,000 rupees (R3,650-R3,880) before the Covid-19 pandemic, said Navkendar Singh, an analyst at IDC.

In comparison, used phones at the fair cost between 1,500 (R350) and 5,000 rupees (R1,140). Singh expects the market for used smartphones to get bigger as new phone prices rise.

“I am a Bachelor of Arts first-year student, ant I am interested in coding and learnt it from YouTube on mobile,” said Najim Hussain, who bought a used laptop for 7,000 rupees (R1,600) from the fair to practise coding.

Sellers at the fair usually collect electronic gadgets and goods from scrap dealers, repair them and sell them at the fair.

“I cannot guarantee if all the phones you see here will work, but the ones I guarantee will definitely work [and] cost more,” said seller Sirajul Laskar, adding people even buy ones he cannot promise will work.

It's a chance many poor buyers seem willing to take.

Ashraf Sardar, who visits the fair every year to find parts to repair his old household appliances, said: “We cannot throw away household items easily like rich people.”

Reuters