an elas­tic plas­tic ban

As Ma­ha­rash­tra keeps mak­ing ex­emp­tions, peo­ple won­der if the ban will at all be ef­fec­tive

Governance Now - - CONTENTS - Ga­janan Khergamker

As Ma­ha­rash­tra keeps mak­ing ex­emp­tions, peo­ple won­der if the ban will at all be ef­fec­tive

For a ban that ar­rived with a bang, it seems to be fad­ing away even be­fore it could take ef­fect. The Ma­ha­rash­tra gov­ern­ment has back-tracted to al­low gro­ceries and gen­eral stores to con­tinue to use plas­tic for pack­ag­ing af­ter shop­keep­ers as­so­ci­a­tions com­plained to state en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Ram­das Kadam. al­ready, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists are call­ing it the be­gin­ning of the end of the plas­tic ban. They say it’s a mat­ter of time be­fore the gov­ern­ment buck­les be­fore the pow­er­ful plas­tic man­u­fac­tur­ers’ lobby and brings in re­lax­ations that turn the ban into a sham.

For a law to be con­sti­tu­tion­ally sound and vi­able, it must be just and prac­ti­ca­ble. The most re­cent ban on plas­tic, adopted through a no­ti­fi­ca­tion is­sued on March 23, 2018, un­der a 2006 state law – the Ma­ha­rash­tra non-biodegrad­able garbage (con­trol) act – is am­bigu­ous, to say the least. The gov­ern­ment’s sub­mis­sive­ness to pow­er­ful in­ter­est groups un­der­cuts what the law – with its flaws – sets out to achieve. some are de­scrib­ing it as prima fa­cie mala fide: with hasty im­ple­men­ta­tion, it pe­nalises the cit­i­zen with­out pro­vid­ing al­ter­na­tives. The fines aren’t in pro­por­tion to the of­fence: a first-time of­fender is fined ₹5,000, a sec­ond-timer ₹10,000, and a third-timer ₹25,000. But the fines are the same whether one is car­ry­ing a sin­gle plas­tic bag or trasport­ing a truck­ful. Bribes will be paid, and if a al­leged vi­o­la­tor con­tests the charge, the mat­ter will go to court, clog­ging up the courts.

even be­fore the ban was im­ple­mented, some groups felt tar­geted while well-or­gan­ised groups lob­bied their way out. un­der the law, spe­cial­ity plas­tic is per­mit­ted for milk and agri­cul­tural pur­chases, but not for fish or meat or other dairy prod­ucts. While re­cy­clable plas­tic is per­mit­ted for wrap­ping man­u­fac­tured prod­ucts or where it is “in­te­gral to man­u­fac­ture”, the law does not clar­ify what in­dus­tries it would ex­empt.

Plas­tic is per­mit­ted in special eco­nomic zones and ex­port-ori­ented fa­cil­i­ties, yet banned for man­u­fac­tur­ers

and traders en­gag­ing in in­ter-state and in­ter­na­tional trade. also, while plas­tic pack­ag­ing for medicines is ex­empted, the gov­ern­ment is back­track­ing on ab­so­lute bans on PET bot­tles of less than half a litre and Ther­mo­col dec­o­ra­tions. The en­vi­ron­ment depart­ment has al­ready stated that for the ganesh fes­ti­val, the ban on Ther­mo­col may be re­laxed.

such dis­crepen­cies are not only bad in law, they may be seen as vi­ola­tive of ar­ti­cle 14 of the con­sti­tu­tion, which guar­an­tees all cit­i­zens equal­ity be­fore the law. in the ‘in­der­preet singh Kahlon vs state of Pun­jab’ case, the supreme court said that ac­tion taken by a state in un­due haste may be held to be mala fide. And in the ‘State of West Ben­gal vs an­war ali’ case, it said that any leg­is­la­tion that gives the ex­ec­u­tive the power to se­lect in­stances for special treat­ment with­out in­di­cat­ing the pol­icy may be set aside as vi­ola­tive of equal­ity.

There are tex­tual in­con­sis­ten­cies too. The law ban­ning plas­tic is in some places painstak­ingly de­tailed and in oth­ers cal­lously ca­sual. The no­ti­fi­ca­tion on “man­u­fac­ture, us­age, trans­port, dis­tri­bu­tion, whole­sale & re­tail sale and stor­age, im­port” is broadly ap­pli­ca­ble to all pub­lic places in the state and to all in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies. Plas­tic bags, dis­pos­able plas­tic and Ther­mo­col prod­ucts are covered by the no­ti­fi­ca­tion which in­cludes sin­gle-use plas­tic con­tain­ers and cut­lery, plas­tic wrap­ping and liq­uid con­tain­ers. How­ever, the def­i­ni­tion am­bigu­ously and abruptly ends with the term ‘etc’, em­pow­er­ing those en­forc­ing the law with lim­it­less dis­cre­tion and end­less power.

Bans on plas­tic in re­gions across in­dia and the world have been largely in­ef­fec­tive for var­i­ous rea­sons. The lack of en­force­ment and un­avail­abil­ity of vi­able al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic have been the ma­jor stum­bling blocks.

For cal­i­for­nia, for in­stance, a le­gal ban on plas­tic be­came ef­fec­tive in 2015 but only af­ter prepa­ra­tions for a good nine years af­ter it passed a leg­is­la­tion in 2006. The state laid down multi-pronged strate­gies and en­sured strict en­force­ment with fines of up to $1,000 a day for vi­o­la­tions. and, af­ter all of this, the ben­e­fits of the ban be­gan to show!

in san Jose, there was a 76 per­cent de­crease in lit­ter re­duc­tion by the end of 2016; a 69 per­cent re­duc­tion of plas­tic bags in storm-wa­ter drains, a 43 per­cent in­crease in con­sumers us­ing re­us­able bags and a 30 per­cent in­crease in con­sumers car­ry­ing items with­out a bag since be­fore the ban. The ban wasn’t fully suc­cess­ful. Yet there were pos­i­tive in­di­ca­tions of change.

There are hur­dles but they don’t seem as un­sur­mount­able. For one, the cal­i­for­nia leg­is­la­ture failed to pass a ban on poly­styrene take-out con­tain­ers. and cal­i­for­nia re­mains the only state to have suc­cess­fully im­ple­mented the ban on plas­tic in the united states.

also, the con­text and the reach of the law must be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion to put things in per­spec­tive. The law on plas­tics en­forced by cal­i­for­nia ap­plies to 3.95 crore peo­ple while the law on the same back in a state in in­dia, say, ut­tar Pradesh, ap­plies to 22.11 crore peo­ple! The prob­lems of reach, ed­u­ca­tion, im­ple­men­ta­tion and suc­cess have to be mea­sured against the re­al­is­tic quan­tum of the is­sue in ques­tion. Fail­ing this, the en­tire ex­er­cise risks be­ing re­duced to a farce.

it may be noted here, that the suc­cess of a ban on plas­tics is di­rectly re­lated to the fact that not all types of plas­tic bags were in­cluded in the ban. also, the pro­vi­sion, availability and vi­a­bil­ity of al­ter­na­tives play a vi­tal role.

look at sikkim, for in­stance. a ban on plas­tic in­tro­duced in June 1998 has been con­sid­ered rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful. a study re­vealed that two-thirds of the shops in sikkim use pa­per bags or news­pa­per and around a third use plas­tic bags. More peo­ple used pa­per bags here than in most in­dian states. in gang­tok, the pro­por­tion of peo­ple us­ing pa­per-based bags is 62 per­cent, whereas in soreng (in West sikkim district) it is 50 per­cent. Plas­tic bag pack­ag­ing is used 18 per­cent less in towns than vil­lages, ow­ing prob­a­bly to the higher lev­els of in­spec­tion.

But con­sider delhi. in Jan­uary 2009, the delhi gov­ern­ment or­dered a com­plete ban on the use of all plas­tic bags in mar­ket ar­eas and then, in oc­to­ber 2012, the delhi gov­ern­ment or­dered a blan­ket ban on all types of plas­tic bags. How­ever, non-wo­ven plas­tic bags were sur­pris­ingly ex­empt from the ban. The ban failed ow­ing to ab­so­lutely no clear ef­fort from the gov­ern­ment to ed­u­cate, ini­ti­ate or even en­force the ban in the right spirit.

in in­dia, it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to mon­i­tor the plas­tic bag us­age of small ven­dors whose num­bers are huge and very fluid. It is rel­a­tively eas­ier to mon­i­tor large busi­nesses and pun­ish them for non-com­pli­ance. cor­po­rates and global brands may dis­play some sense of so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity, but a small trader or first-time ven­dor may not com­ply.

in­ci­den­tally, Ma­ha­rash­tra is in­dia’s big­gest gen­er­a­tor of plas­tic waste pro­duc­ing more than 4.6 lakh tonnes ev­ery year. The ban, when an­nounced, was per­ceived as a tough po­lit­i­cal move that would face re­sis­tance, but be sup­ported across quar­ters. For greater good.

Yet, once the ban was an­nounced, the cash-rich in­dus­try started lob­by­ing to get the gov­ern­ment to change its stance. sto­ries be­gan to ap­pear within the me­dia on the “loss of jobs” ow­ing to the de­ci­sion and fears of the eco­nomic im­pact on Ma­ha­rash­tra. While on the face of things, the in­dus­try promised a slew of re­cy­cling ini­tia­tives; it pooled in its col­lec­tive force to high­light how “eco­log­i­cally harm­ful” the ban would be, as it would lead to “more us­age of pa­per”. Buck­ling un­der pres­sure, the gov­ern­ment ex­empted com­pa­nies us­ing plas­tic pack­ag­ing for food prod­ucts, bread and milk. next, PET bot­tles used for min­eral drink­ing wa­ter were ex­empted. and within days of the ban on plas­tic, re­tail pack­ag­ing of not less than 250 gm was per­mit­ted for small­time gen­eral and gro­cery stores.

in­ci­den­tally, 18 states have an­nounced a com­plete ban on the man­u­fac­ture, sup­ply and stor­age of poly­thene bags and other plas­tic items such as cups, plates, spoons and glasses while five states have a par­tial ban such as one on sales etc. so of the 36 states and union ter­ri­to­ries in the coun­try, 23 have banned plas­tic in some way or the other! and yet, the scourge of plas­tic pol­lu­tion is on the rise quash­ing the myth that a ban of any sort works.n

Once the ban was an­nounced, the plas­tic in­dus­try lob­bied to get the govt to change tack. Sto­ries started ap­pear­ing on how it would cause many peo­ple to lose jobs and how it would harm the en­vi­ron­ment by in­creas­ing the us­age of pa­per.

PHO­TOS: Ga­janan khergamker

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