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India’s Plot against Plastic: Gauging Possibilities

By: Kangkana Goswami

Research Scholar, NLUJAA

They say, pledge against Plastic is vague, bogus and a mere misnomer. They equivocally also reiterate, that getting rid of existing plastic trash is too humongous an idea to be conceived.  This is where the quest for the pre-requisite for an anti-plastic regime gets provoked in the ignited minds of scientists, environmentalists, policymakers, economists and legislators.

With a waste generation of 150 million tones annually, India drowned in the quagmire of plastic utility, politically dared to utter ‘No’ for the first time, when from the premise of Red Fort, the Prime Minister delivering his Independence day speech, pitched for freeing India from the clutches of plastic menace.

This proposition however needs sanctioning by many pre-requisites. To begin with, when it comes to dealing with the existing plastic trash, a lot can be learnt from Sweden.

Known as one of the world’s best recycling nations, Sweden, is following the policy of ‘No Plastic Ban, Instead More Plastic Recycling.’

The incinerators of Sweden have transformed their trash into treasure. The country has consumed and exhausted its plastic to an extent where it is now banking on trash from other nations to continue its operation. This ambitious operation however goes for a toss when it comes to real-time operation in India, as trash in India is not segregated at source, and getting the public fully aware, conscious, and holistically operative is a herculean task at hand.

Adding to the woes is Plastic with its Covid connect. Only a few months back, ecologists and environmentalists started believing in the dream for a plastic-free India. From 2018 onwards, many state governments had started restricting single-use plastic items and by early 2019, more than half of the states in the country had enacted laws to ban or limit the use of single-use plastic. This however went for a toss when with the advent of the Covid pandemic, the inevitability quotient of plastic increased with the use of plastic cutlery, carry bags, garbage bags, disposable plastic materials etc as a precautionary measure against the spread of the virus.  Plastic is also used in making face shields, gloves, head covers, shoe covers, sanitizer bottles etc. In the wake of such discourses, doing away with plastic disposables,  in the contemporary scenario is not short of setbacks.

A bird’s eye reckoning of the entire scheme of things suggests phase-wise pursuance of the problem at hand. The first probable initiative that can resonate with a sensible beginning is the management of plastic waste blocking the widespread littering of plastic and micro-plastic wastes across towns and cities. What is even more alarming and an immediate factor of plastic pollution is the burning of plastic in public places.

In continued approach to thwart the tendencies of these forms of fatal practices in letter and spirit, the NGT has been consistently involved in monitoring the real-time situation on the ground and has from time to time imposed several mandates in several states across India to take baby steps towards regulating plastic waste management at the first place.

Back in December 2020, the NGT had directed the Delhi Government to ban the burning of plastic. The National Green Tribunal headed by Chairperson Justice A K Goel, has directed the Delhi government to keep a continuous vigil against the burning of plastic and other waste for the protection of the environment and public health.

The tribunal was hearing pleas filed by Mundka village resident Satish Kumar and Tikri-Kalan native Mahavir Singh alleging pollution caused by burning of plastic, leather, rubber, motor engine oil and other waste materials and continuous operation of illegal industrial units dealing with such articles on agricultural lands in Mundka and Neelwal villages. These mandates should also be followed by strict penal impositions for the ones flouting these sensitive environmental norms.

The Government has been phrasing and re-phrasing anti-plastic laws, mandates and bans for years now. From its first Plastic Waste Management Laws in 1999, the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling Rules) in  2011 , The Plastic waste management Rule 2016…to the recently drafted  Draft Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2021. These rules and mandates however never saw the light of the day owing to multiple reasons. It all starts with mudslinging between the Centre and the State, where the States assert that they have placed on record administrative mandates against plastic mismanagement, but there is nothing more concrete and sustainable on the part of the Central Government to go about it further. The Centre on the other hand depends on feebly empowered agencies like the CPCB and state pollution control boards to enforce it. These agencies are already fighting a losing battle owing to either low staff strength, or multiplicity of the task, lack of coordination among related agencies or low motivation and accountability among the staff.

Very often the government has been compelled to give in to the pressure exerted by the plastic industry and lobby groups. The Government at a point has to take cognizance of the fact that the plastic industry remains critical to the economy of the country and the government has to acknowledge that. Legislating big businesses to reduce their utility of unnecessary plastic and innovate alternatives can be a solution, but that has to pass through the crest and troughs of contention and concord between the government and the business houses.

Therefore tougher environmental standards for plastic products and insisting on the use of recyclable plastic only, coupled with the religious application of ‘polluter pay principle’ and ‘  ‘extended producer responsibility’ might at-least pull a brake on the explicit irresponsibility businesses exhibit.

The Centre has recently mooted for the increase of thickness of plastic from 50micron to 120 micron from September this year, with an intent to improve the scenario of reuse and collection of plastic bags. Also, as per the new draft rules of 2021, production, import, stocking, and sale of distribution of all single-use plastic products will be banned ahead of the independence day celebrations next year.

The Manufactures and Brand owners will be given a time frame to work out alternatives of production using compostable plastic or other alternatives.  These Draft Rules are now open to stakeholders and domain experts for exercising their opinions before the Rules are finally served on the table.

The new Rules, if not dragged under the carpet, can prove to be a game-changer for the first time because of their phased approach. However, its non-involvement of inter-ministerial participation might again dilute all efforts as there are ample chances that, ousting inert-ministerial dialogue might also carry with its the risk of disregarding or under-estimating the inter-disciplinary challenges. This is where the acceleration of the new mandate might stumble again only to either get relaxed or diluted in due course of execution.

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