Insufficient Planning May be the Undoing of Maharashtra's Plastic Ban

Within a fortnight since the ban was introduced, lobbyists have already influenced the government to make exceptions for milk packets and PET bottles, setting a dangerous precedent for other players.

On March 23, 2018, Maharashtra became the 18th state to bring in a complete ban on plastic bags and other items made of plastic. It was a comprehensive order that banned not just manufacture but also usage, storage and distribution of items made of plastics. The government’s decision received widespread support from the general public and environment activists. Now, within days, the ambitious order is already showing signs of coming apart.

Intense lobbying by manufacturers has already led to some exceptions to the new rule. For example, milk packets and PET bottles have already been exempted. Now, there are hectic efforts to make the new regulations inapplicable for other packed items.

The ban, as originally envisioned, was to be a major step ahead of the 2016’s union government’s decision that banned usage of plastic below 50 microns in thickness. But now there are concerns that Maharashtra’s ban would end up like most other states where the ban exists on paper but usage of plastics continue, unabated and unhindered.

Sometime in August last year, the state environment minister Ramdas Kadam had indicated about his intention of introducing the ban. In January 2018, the Plastic Bag Manufactures’ Association of India (PBMAI) moved the Bombay high court. The state, in an affidavit filed in the court in February, had stated that it would submit a draft of the notification and invite both opposition and suggestions before a final notification was issued. But the PBMAI alleged that even before the draft could be submitted, the state decided to bring in the ban.

“We are the primary stake holders. But we were neither consulted nor our views considered. The state arbitrarily decided to bring in the ban and with one stroke it took away livelihood of nearly 60 thousand people involved in the plastic bag manufacturing business,” said Neemit Punamiya of PBMAI. It is estimated that along with the plastic bag manufactures, another two and half lakh people are directly or indirectly related to the plastic industry and will be impacted by this move. The PBMAI and other organisations have moved the high court seeking a stay on the ban and the case is scheduled to be heard on April 11.

According to the sources in the environment department, Kadam was forced to exempt milk packets from the ban as the government’s own dairy development department opposed his plan. The department claimed that milk manufacturers and suppliers would be severely impacted as they had no option if milk pouches were banned. Reluctantly, Kadam had to give in. Such exemptions are now making the plastic manufactures hopeful. “The plastics used for milk storage is exactly like what we produce. Then why does the state feel milk packets are less harmful that the polythene bags we have been producing,” Punamiya asks.

Unfeasible alternatives

Environmental activists and experts feel that while the plastic needs to be phased out completely, no clamp down would work until an alternative is also offered at the same time. Eighteen states and union territories, that is half of India, have already issued individual state-wise notifications for a complete ban on usage of plastic bags and other plastic items. But according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report published in 2015, almost all states are still struggling to implement the ban effectively.

For example, Chandigarh introduced a complete ban on plastic bags, but the data says that the total plastic waste generation is approximately 8,383 tonnes per annum. Chandigarh has a total of 120 registered plastic manufacturing/recycling units. Experts say, besides some regions in the North East, especially Sikkim, almost every state has failed to achieve its goal. In fact, despite an existing partial ban on the usage of plastic bags in some places in Maharashtra, the state generated approximately 4,69,098 tonnes per annum of plastic waste during the year 2015-16.

In a state like Maharashtra where the rains are quite heavy, using paper bags will not be a feasible option according to Rohit Joshi, an environment activist “One can’t imagine a use of paper bags in incessant rains in a city like Mumbai. Also, other alternative recycled bags or jute bags are not a viable affordable alternative. Unless we have thought of cheaper and viable options, the ban will not be implemented in its true spirit,” Joshi added.

Challenges to enforcing a complete ban

His organisation, Yeoor Environmental Society in Thane near Mumbai works towards conservation of the Yeoor forests and has been trying innovative ways to sensitise people against the usage of plastic. Recently he introduced the idea of “plogging”, where jogging enthusiasts picked up plastic wastes along a stretch of 4.5 kilometres as a part of the exercise. A similar citizens initiative was also started on the Versova beach by a city- based lawyer Afroze Shah in 2015 where he and his team have since cleared about 5 million kilograms of debris – by hand — from a 2.7 km shoreline. The spotting of 80 Olive Ridley turtles’ hatchlings on the shore first time in many decades is being linked with this cleanliness effort.

But these initiatives are far and few between. Environment activist and a member of Aarey Conservation Group Amrita Bhattacharjee feels using and then cleaning up cannot be a long-term plan. “We need a change in attitude. Like three decades ago in Guwahati in Assam where I was born, I don’t remember seeing any plastic bags. People used paper bags or steel and glass jars to carry oil and milk. We ought to return to those days to ensure we don’t cause any further damage to the environment,” said Bhattacharjee.

Also, even if the state decides to implement the ban strictly, at present, the system is chaotic with too many departments authorised to implement the ban, including municipal officials, officials from the district collector’s office and Zilla Parishads, state pollution control board, health, education, tourism ministries; traffic police, state tax officials and others for imposing fines. Violators will be fined Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 for first and second time offence and a third-time offender will be fined Rs 25,000 and can also face three months imprisonment. But there is no clarity on how each of these authorised bodies will implement the ban and collect the fine. Also, these departments are already grappling with limited resources, and additional responsibilities of inspections and raids will only add to their woes. There is no mechanism to keep track of the history of violations either.

Damage to livelihood as a major ground for opposition

At present, the state has around 2,500 plastic manufacturing units, over 8,000 stores, nearly 12,000 small traders and 300 large distributors involved in the plastic manufacturing business. The manufactures want a waiver on packaging material till alternatives are identified and made available. “Food grains and food items including fruits and vegetables should be treated at par with milk and the state should extend the repository (50 paisa per bag) scheme on them,” Punamiya told The Wire. Under the repository scheme, a consumer will have to pay 50 paisa extra each time she buys a milk packet and the money will be refunded when the plastic bags are returned.

The plastic manufactures association has also sought a seven years’ period to exit the business. “We need reasonable time to make an ethical exit. We can’t just sack our employees. We need to be able to pay them their gratuity and give them time to make alternative arrangements. Also, may be the same industry would be able to come up with an alternative to plastic. But that will all take time,” Punamiya added. The government is sticking to its new regulations, but with exceptions already being declared and the difficulty in enforcing any complete ban, the best of intentions may not translate into effective results any time soon.