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“One must care about the world one will not see” -Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the United Nations General Assembly for the first time on September 23, 2015, thus started his speech invoking Gandhiji.

The Prime Minister stressed on India’s commitment to a sustainable path to prosperity that comes from the natural instinct of our tradition and culture and also rooted firmly in our commitment to the future.

Four years down the line on September 23, 2019, PM Modi addressing the UN Climate Action Summit at the UN Headquarters in New York once again invoked Mahatma Gandhi while emphasizing on the fact that “need” and not “greed” should be the guiding principles if we have to overcome the serious challenge of climate change.

“What we need is a global people’s movement to bring about behavioural change. The respect for nature, the judicious use of resources, reducing our needs and living within our means have all been important aspects of both our traditions and present-day efforts… We believe that an ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of preaching,” the Indian Prime Minister told the gathering.

PM Modi spelt out all the initiatives being taken by India to bring about incremental change from non-fossil fuel, increase in renewable energy capacity, plans to make transport sector green through e-mobility, biofuels, biogas, rainwater harvesting, water conservation and providing clean water and most importantly banning the use of single-use plastic from October 2–the birthday of the Mahatma.

Taking forward that idea, PM Modi said, “This year on the occasion of India’s independence day on August 15, we called for a peoples’ movement to end the use of single-use plastic. I hope that this will create awareness at a global level about the harmful effects of single-use plastic.”

This is undoubtedly the farthest-reaching commitments by any country to tackle the problem and surely an epoch-making one that is going to have far-reaching effects.

The Problem

In January 2015, an assessment report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) stated that every day, Indian cities generate 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste–enough to fill 1,500 trucks, at 10 tonnes per truck–of which 9,000 tonnes are collected and processed/recycled, while the remaining 6,000 tonnes or 600 truckloads, usually litter drains, streets or are dumped in landfills.

Even three of the world’s ten rivers which carry 90 per cent of plastic to the world’s oceans are in India–the Indus, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra.

Looking at the magnitude of the problem, two judges of India’s Supreme Court Justice Singhvi and Justice Mukhopadhaya, commented on May 2012 that “the next generation will be threatened with something more serious than the atom bomb” unless a “total ban on plastic is put in place”.

Twenty Indian states/UTs have a complete ban on the manufacture, supply and storage of polythene bags and other plastic items such as cups, plates, spoons, glasses while five states have a partial ban, but implementation has been very poor.

Big cities like Mumbai already has a complete ban on single-use plastics–from plastic bags to bottles and cutlery in place as part of a statewide ban in Maharashtra. However, the ban allows exemptions for retail packaging, trash can liners and takeaway packaging. Such concessions are reportedly in response to pressure from big businesses.

Hiten Bheda, president of the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association, said recently that the plastics industry remains critical for India’s economy and the government acknowledges this.

The debate around plastics pollution has been fierce in India. While the move to ban plastics nationwide have been welcomed unanimously, serious doubts have also been raised about how such an ambitious decision will be implemented in a country where Government departments often give in to the pressure of the plastic industry and lobby groups.

Experience shows that, despite several efforts to ban single-use plastic in almost every state of India, the enforcement and implementation is often lax. For instance, although shopkeepers and vendors are fined for using polythene bags, there is hardly any impact of such fines due to the absence of regular monitoring.

Similarly, local administrations remain mute spectators to the unabated use of plastic banners, bunting and other banned plastics by political parties.

In order to make the ban work, it is important that the Centre takes an approach that doesn’t put the onus solely on ordinary people to discard plastic. Putting pressure on businesses is the key to making the ban work. It is equally important to make big businesses end their use of unnecessary plastic and innovate alternatives. The government need to conduct a regular audit on how businesses are contributing to the problem of single-use plastics and making companies accountable for the plastic waste that comes from their products.

So far ordinary citizens seem to be leading the way on the decision to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022. But to deal with the plastic problem, the government genuinely need to focus on key areas like drastic reduction in the amount of plastic produced, redesign of products and packaging and to make them recyclable and also helping recycling plants upgrade their technology.

Mubina Akhtar is an environmental journalist and wildlife activist. She can be reached at newildflowers@gmail.com

Mubina Akhtar

Mubina Akhtar is an environmental journalist and wildlife activist. She can be reached at: newildflowers@gmail.com

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