The car you drive to work, the ATMs you use to withdraw cash, the
inverters that act as backups in areas with intermittent power
supply—they’re all powered by squat boxes of energy known as lead-acid
In India, according to a recent report by Angel Broking Ltd, lead-acid batteries form a nearly Rs.
10,000 crore industry; some industry estimates point out that with
local battery brands flourishing across the country, that figure could
even be as high as Rs. 17,000-18,000 crore.
the ecosystem in which these batteries are produced and recycled has a
dark underside. Blood samples of workers in the industry, collected and
analysed by Bangalore-based National Referral Centre for Lead Poisoning
Prevention in India (NRCLPI), show up the presence of threatening levels
of lead. Depending on the duration of exposure, lead can act as a toxin
to vital organs,cause blood disorders, and in its severest form, prove
The NRLCPI’s study, conducted in 2009 and again earlier
this year, surveyed factory workers employed by one of India’s top
battery companies, three mid-level players, and a recycling giant. The
workers were spread across plants and facilities in Krishnagiri in Tamil
Nadu, Bangalore and Secunderabad in Andhra Pradesh, and Pune. A large
recycling plant in Hubli was also part of the study.
According to copies of the reports that Mint has obtained, tests
carried out on sample sizes of between 21 and 100 workers showed that
46-80% of the workers had blood lead counts higher than 43 micrograms
per decilitre (mcg/dl), the permissible limit set by the US-based
Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
India has not
established biological exposure indices for lead or other hazardous
chemicals for the workplace. It follows standards established by the
American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists; the maximum
permissible lead level in those standards is more stringent, at 30
The NRCLPI study found that at least 70% of the workers at
the Krishnagiri plant had elevated blood lead levels—in one case,
higher than 200 mcg/dl. In Bangalore, at least eight workers with lead
counts of between 74-94 mcg/dl were missing, having “left” the factory
when researchers went back after eight months for a second set of
Since 2007, NRCLPI has diagnosed 800 battery workers with
lead poisoning, but its reports remain confidential because of
non-disclosure agreements signed with the companies. “Results show that
the industry is not complying with environment standards,” says T.
Venkatesh, principal adviser at NRCLPI. “This is unacceptable.”
of these violations have escaped government scrutiny, in part because
the market is scattered, employing several lakh people. India’s largest
lead-acid battery firms, Exide Industries Ltd and Amara Raja Batteries
Ltd, which control 85% of the formal market, employ 6,000 and 4,000
Several firms, including Exide and Amara Raja, did not respond to questions relating to battery collection and recycling.
is a particularly insidious industrial toxin. Every worker involved in
the battery industry faces some level of exposure and thus needs
protective gear. Lead also never dies, getting used over and over again.
Also See | The Wide Gap (Graphic)
safety standards and an explosive growth in lead use make a disastrous
combination, says Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, a Delhi-based
non-governmental organization. “There is no reason why workers at large
companies should have high exposures,” he says. “All these plants would
have to shut if they were in Europe, where norms are strict.”
The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that no blood lead
monitoring facilities currently exist in hospitals run by the Employees’
State Insurance Corporation, the premier organization serving factory
employees. Industrial health is also low on the list of priorities among
Yet, the lead-acid battery industry, upon which many
facets of Indian industrialization depend, is booming. Lead batteries
are used to cool railway coaches, and run the railways’ signalling
system and communication exchanges. They keep telephone exchanges
buzzing. Industrial goods cannot be produced without power backups.
Inverters and power utilities also need battery banks.
Add to this
the rapidly rising number of cars, trucks, forklifts, submarines and
army tanks in India. With lithium-ion cells still a long way off from
becoming common, lead batteries are the predominant power source in
Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, India’s biggest car manufacturer,
produced 322,373 cars between July and September this year alone, up 30%
from the same period last year.
Demand being as high as it is,
more firms are poised to enter this space. Su-Kam Power Systems Ltd,
which currently manufactures inverter batteries, will launch its
automotive and power plant range of batteries by the end of this year.
Luminous Power Technologies Pvt. Ltd will raise money from the capital
markets next year to expand its range of products.
recyclers are also climbing up the value chain. In February,
Kolkata-based Associated Pigments Ltd signed up with the US-based Pilot
Battery Co. Ltd to make batteries. Earlier this month, Gravita India
Ltd, which claims to run scrap recycling operations in Ghana, Ethiopia
and Zambia, went public in an initial public offering that was
oversubscribed 40 times.
Part of the reason for the steep demand
and short supply is the deficit in lead. Hindustan Zinc Ltd (HZL), the
country’s only miner of lead, produces 85,000 tonnes a year out of the
400,000 tonnes consumed within the country, a company official said.
to a February report by Brickwork Ratings, only a quarter of India’s
lead requirement is met by HZL. More than half is retrieved from
secondary smelting and the informal sector, and the balance met by
The perils of lead recycling have prompted the government
to put in place regulations for safe recycling. Battery manufacturers
are required to collect 90% of their sales volume. But investigations by
Occupational Knowledge International (OK), a US-based non-profit
assisting firms in controlling industrial waste, show that companies
have barely met these commitments.
Details sought under the Right
to Information Act across six states by one of OK’s representatives
shows that companies such as GNB Technologies India Pvt. Ltd, a
subsidiary of the US-based Exide Technologies, reported zero recycled
lead collection during 2007-2009. Amara Raja has barely managed 26%.
According to OK’s October release, Tractors and Farm Equipment Ltd
scraped together 11%, while Tudor Tyres and Batteries Ltd has collected
39% of its sales.
“Few manufacturers are meeting regulatory
requirements, and there is no penalty for those who fail to meet them,”
Perry Gottesfeld, OK’s president, wrote in an email. “Clearly, this
system is not working to ensure future supplies, when you factor in the
20% growth that these companies have been experiencing.”
lead there is in the formal sector, the more there is in unorganized
recycling, where it becomes even harder to track health and safety
As business and worker interests collide, the
government’s Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules, first introduced
in 2001, were amended in May, making it mandatory for all companies to
report employees’ blood lead samples every six months. But the new
stringency has thus far had limited success.
Two officials at the
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), who did not want to be named
because they are not allowed to speak to the media, said that these
company reports have started arriving, but they are often “doctored” by
companies to show less exposure.
These predicaments call for a
change, says J. S. Kamyotra, CPCB’s member secretary. “Workers are
(being) exposed to lead,” he says, “and recyclers have to be responsible