Pakistan Considering a Ban on Import of Used Computers: Good Idea or Bad?

Posted on March 7, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Economy & Development, Environment, Science and Technology
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Adil Najam

Pakistan is set to impose a ban on the import of used computers into Pakistan. Reportedly, President Zardari has asked the Ministry of Information Technology to draft such a law and the Ministry has now sought public opinion on the matter.

Indeed, there can be good reasons to consider such a ban since trade in e-waste is a major menace with serious social, health and environmental implications and because Pakistan has become a major destination for e-waste dumping. There is also a business case for doing so and, reportedly, the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industries (LCCI) and international manufacturers (such as Intel) have also been pushing Pakistan to do so; largely with an eye on increasing the market for new computers. On the other hand, a case can also be made that the availability of cheaper (even if marginally) used computers increases access to computers in a developing country, especially in terms of affordability for those in the lower economic strata who may, otherwise, be left out of computer developments.

There is clearly a debate in the country and it is a real debate because it does have real implications for economic, environmental and technological choices for ordinary Pakistanis.

First, the details of what is in the works right now, from Dawn:

The ministry of information technology has been asked to draft a proposal for a ban on the import of used computers and IT accessories. Ministry officials told Dawn on Saturday that the secretary of the IT ministry had received a letter from President Asif Ali Zardari asking him to highlight factors that necessitated the action named above. The ministry has sought feedback from stakeholders on pros and cons of the proposed ban.

In terms of the arguments being made for such a ban, the most poignant is the argument about e-waste. Harmless as it may seem it is actually a very serious and seriously disturbing endeavor and, as this Greenpeace photo-essay shows ewaste is a very real threat in Pakistan. A report in Dawn from June 2009 calls Pakistan “a dumping ground for e-waste.”

Despite the fact that dumping old computers in developing countries has been declared as violation of international law, Pakistan was being used as dumping ground for over 50,000 tons of e-waste that hurts local industry and also creates environmental and health hazards. Despite being a signatory to the Basel Convention that restricted importing used/old computers, more than 500,000 used computers are finding ways into Pakistani computer market each year… The USA, Singapore and some European countries, to mention some, were using Pakistan a dumping ground for the used computers. Making long journey to the country, some parts of the computers get rusted. Sorting is done and only 15 to 40 per cent of these computers can be used and the rest is waste and recycled by women and children in godowns working in terrible conditions and exposed to toxic fumes from burning hardware, speakers highlighted. “Recycling and disposal of computer waste in Pakistan is a serious problem because their treatment methods are rudimentary. Simply tossing them in landfills is bad solution because that also means dumping lead, copper and mercury contained in them. Over time, these heavy metals can leech into the ground and contaminate the soil and ground water causing serious illnesses,” said a concerned speaker.

There are also those who make a technology and economy case for such a ban. This case, not surprisingly, has been made strongly by many IT industry representatives – who do stand to gain market if such a ban is imposed. For example, excerpts from a report in The News from 2008:

According to Ashar H. Zaidi, Country Manager, Intel Pakistan “Despite the decline in the price of new computers, the country consumes over 500,000 second hand PCs every year. The reason for this is lack of awareness. People are not aware of the benefits offered by new computers”.  Khusnood Aftab, CEO, Softwise Technologies, said: “Consumers can buy a brand new computer today for as low as Rs. 11,000 or on monthly installments of Rs. 350. These computers come with a three year warranty against a second hand Pentium 4 which comes with no warranty and costs up to Rs. 10,000″ … Mohsin Iqbal, General Manager, Personal Systems Group, Hewlett Packard Pakistan, confirmed this by saying: “We are facing a major energy crisis today which can be controlled by using the latest technology which goes a long way in saving electricity. He also said: “A lot of new software and applications which have become the basic need of most PC users cannot be run on the obsolete machines being offered by the importers of refurbished computers.”

But there are also those on the other side of the argument who see the ban as a market grab and fear that this will only restrict the access of affordable and cheaper alternatives to those who cannot afford new computers and who will face a heightened economic barrier to benefiting from information technology. The case is presented in the Dawn report on the proposed ban:

The move will benefit multinational companies dealing in new computers and increase their profits, take computers out of the range of poor students and affect livelihood of thousands of vendors dealing in used computers. At present there is no indigenous manufacture of computers and IT equipment. All computers, used and new, are being imported. Intel, the world’s largest manufacturer of branded computers and IT accessories, is the main supplier in Pakistan. Although Intel has many marketing outlets in Pakistan, it has not set up a manufacturing plant in the country. It has one in India.

Pakistan Computers Association president Munawar Mughal opposed the move and termed it “unjust and based on malevolence.” He said his association would resist the ban at every level. He said Pakistan was a third world country where 80 per cent consumers buy second-hand computers. “Multinational companies are trying to get a ban imposed on import of second-hand computers to capture the market, but the government should realise that a large number of poor people cannot afford to buy a new computer costing between Rs25,000 and Rs45,000.” Mr Mughal said, adding that the price of a used desktop PC ranged between Rs5,000 and Rs10,000. The ban would deprive poor students of their right to modern education and the country would lose millions of dollars in foreign exchange if the proposal was approved, Mr Mughal said.

A blog-post on this subject by Kamran Bukhari at Pro-Pakistani weighs the debate and argues:

If ban imposed, no vendor/seller will be able to sell used/computers in the market, eventually causing computer prices go high by 4 times at least. Clearly computer manufacturers, Intel being the leader, are grouping up to run this on-media and off-media campaign for ban on sale of old/used computers to capture their share – instead of investing into country for setting up a manufacturing plant in the country, like they have in India. If a computer manufacturing plant is deployed in the country, it will not only serve local economy but will also bring down the prices for new computers. Before any conclusion on this and imposing ban, Government must realize all aspects and that a common man may not afford to buy a reasonable new computer costing well over 20,000. As per estimates, there are total of 14,00,000 computers in Pakistan, out of which 60 percent are used/old computers, 24 percent internationally assembled new computers while 16 percent locally assembled new computers.

Even though some of the numbers thrown around in the quotes seem arbitrary and unsupported (in terms of amounts of ewastes, or estimates of computers in the market, or the economic impact of the ban) the fact is that the issue is a real one with real implications, as are the concerns on the two sides. Importantly, there are policy options that can address these concerns, at least three come immediately to mind:

  • Policy instruments (at the point of import) that can sift out the “ewaste” (an environmental ‘bad’)(an environmental ‘good’) stream of imported used computers from those destined to be recycled and reused is not impossible, and need not even be difficult.
  • Similarly, the opportunity cries out for linking this initiative with a policy push for incentivising local manufacture of computers and computer parts. If international brands are going to get a windfall in market share because of such a policy, then now would be the time to encourage them to invest some of it into manufacturing (in greater part, or whole) in Pakistan.
  • Options of increasing the shelf-life and of computers already in Pakistan so that each computer already in the market spends more years in productive use (through refurbishment and reuse by greater number of hand-me-down users) before being dumped as e-waste itself should also be considered. This would also mean that the market for used computers need not dry out immediately, even if the import of used computers from abroad does. To be effective, however, this would mean considering manufacturer buy-back options and other ways of thinking ‘cradle to grave’ in terms of not just computers but also other electronic consumer goods.

These, of course, are very quick and immediate thoughts that come to mind. More serious thought ought to be invested in to problem, because it is such a ‘solveable’ problem.

But the real point is that would it not be great if we really made this (and so many others) a real policy debate about how best to resolve a real policy problem, rather than yet another political squabble to be thrown into our already boiling stew of concocted conspiracies, needless name-calling and pointless panderings.

47 responses to “Pakistan Considering a Ban on Import of Used Computers: Good Idea or Bad?”

  1. fukattsoft says:

    Researchers on the national university (NUST) have evolved a bilingual (Urdu and English) screening app, the first of its type in Urdu on the android ecosystem, which allows Pakistanis to self-display for COVID-19, pronounced the news.

    Developed at the countrywide center of robotics and automation (NCRA), the app, named COVID take a look at Pakistan, has been used for over 8,000 screenings (and counting) in 9 unique countries, which include us, united kingdom, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, in the first two days of its beta rollout on March 23, 2020. -for-corona-screening/

  2. imtiaz gul says:

    I am a student doing my (HSC pre-engineering)2nd year using a secondhand dell Gx280 i bought it for about 5000 because of the cheap rate i am able to buy it other wise i cant afford buying a new pc which cost more than 15000.

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