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Metro Matters: What Delhi needs to do to get rid of plastic bags

Enforcing the ban by NGT on use of plastic bags will remain a challenge in Delhi. Fining violators is not enough. Capital needs coordination among departments and sustained awareness drives

delhi Updated: Aug 14, 2017 17:37 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Plastic ban,NGT,Polythene bags
AToxic Links study found that after the initial initiatives in 2012 to ban plastic bags in Delhi, enforcement became lax. Almost 99% of vegetable and fruit vendors and 95% of meat and fish sellers surveyed, continued to use them.(Sunil Ghosh/HT Photo)

Last week, the National Green Tribunal banned the use of lightweight plastic bags in Delhi. It was the fifth such direction in eight years.

Since 2009, when the government first restricted the use of plastic bags, the ban has been tweaked to get more specific about the thickness of these carriers, and even prohibit their manufacturing — a move which was challenged in court. But the ubiquitous plastic “pannee” has remained in circulation, making the ban among the most poorly executed government/court orders ever.

This time though, the authorities will be bound by two such orders. The notification of the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 that also stipulates a ban on plastic bags thinner than 50 microns was due when the NGT stepped in.

But enforcing the ban will remain a challenge. Catching and fining violators, and seizing stocks are essentially policing exercises. “You can’t expect a sanitation inspector, who is otherwise monitoring collection of garbage and transportation to landfills, to be enforcing the plastic bag ban as well,” a municipal official said.

Clearly, Delhi will require officials across departments have to pitch in. But with a history of blame-game fuelled by Delhi’s multiple jurisdictional structures, coordination among agencies is always an uphill task. The courts may have to intervene frequently and even appoint their own monitors.

A ban on manufacturing flimsy plastic bags is likely to follow. But to make it work, the neighbouring states must also enforce a similar restriction. As a study by Toxic Links found, even a complete ban on the production of the plastic bag doesn’t work if they can be imported from adjoining cities.

Chandigarh, for instance, faces this challenge. Despite a ban on use and production of plastic bags, the city was consuming up to four tonnes every day. The demand was being illegally met from Mohali and Delhi.

Also, the enforcement drives have to be consistent. The Toxic Links study found that after the initial initiatives in 2012 in Delhi, which netted about 300 violators, enforcement was lax and plastic bags reappeared. Almost 99% of vegetable and fruit vendors and 95% of meat and fish sellers surveyed, continued to use them.

While strong enforcement and cutting the supply of plastic bags would be vital for implementing this ban, such initiatives also require mass awareness drives which eventually garner public support.

The 2008 ban on smoking in public places worked because citizens were on board. Even as mobile squads were constituted to fine the violators on the spot, there was a growing realisation among the citizens that inhaling second-hand smoke was harmful to their health. It was not uncommon for a random stranger to rebuke smokers who lit up in a public place. Through mass messaging and awareness building, the anti-smoking drive was run more like a health campaign than enforcing a ban.

Plastic bags may not directly affect our health but they are an environmental disaster. Any Delhi resident should know that there is a good chance that casually discarded plastic bags are responsible for the overflowing sewer in front of her house. These bags also accumulate to clog storm water drains and roads get waterlogged after every downpour.

If we care to look around, a large chunk of garbage visible on streets, in dumpsters and landfills is made up of plastic bags. Thinner bags are of little value to ragpickers because it cannot be reused. So they leave them where they are. Even when disposed of responsibly, plastic bags can last forever in the environment. Animals eat these bags for the traces of food inside and die a slow death.

Experts say the hill towns have been partially successful in getting rid of their plastic bags because both governments and people are aware of what these can do to their fragile environment. In 1998, Sikkim banned plastic bags following a spate of landslides triggered by the clogged drainage system in and around Gangtok. The magnitude of the risk made the people accept the ban.

Unless we are made to see the consequences of our thoughtless daily choices, plastic bags will remain the default option even though carrying a cloth bag for shopping is not a big task. With proper enforcement in place, Delhi needs a little persuasion to kick the dangerous convenience.

First Published: Aug 14, 2017 14:41 IST