Friday, March 21, 2014

The flop tale of reduction of plastic usage in Mumbai

After successful implementation of plastic ban in many states/ areas, a similar plan was introduced in Mumbai too with slight changes. Mumbai being a big commercial capital with a combination of people from all backgrounds and a huge population, its not easy to implement big social awareness plans easily. So a different policy was adopted. Everything in Mumbai, from vegetables to fish to meat to roadside eatables were handed out in fine plastic bags. It is said that these plastic bags were also one of the major causes of the floods of 2005 in Mumbai due to clogging of drainages.
So the first policy adopted was - plastic bags thinner than 50 microns were banned in the city some years ago. This is being implemented and successful to an extent. But still in small lanes and areas, this is flouted sometimes (or many times?). There is no control in busy commercial areas of Mumbai which are congested by traders, people and traffic! Offenders are caught at times, plastic is seized and fine is levied, but in Mumbai everything is comparative. For a small time trader/ hawker, if getting a good plastic (more than 50 microns) costs Rs 1000/- for example and gets him business worth Rs 5000/- to Rs. 10,000/- per day, this might mean profit of Rs 2000/- to Rs.5000/- per day less Rs. 1000/- expenses (of good plastic purchased). Whereas a finer quality cheaper plastic may cost him Rs 100 to Rs 200/ and increase profit margin. And the possibility of being caught is once in few months and at that time a fine of Rs.5000 or more could be levied. But this again would be less cost to trader as he has managed to earn much more profit due to this difference already. And these acts are not seriously implemented by officials. It is all arranged. What can be monitored daily is usually ignored and acted on once in a while, so both benefit. But there are many honest shopkeepers who have implemented usage of plastic more than 50 microns concept since implementation. And it has made a difference. Also there are 'aware citizens' who report offending small shops / vendors.
After this 'partly' successful phase, it was felt that a bigger plan was required to phase out use of plastics. All malls and stores were handing out your purchases, big and small, in complimentary plastic bags. And as is the case with Indians, after having made good purchases in a shop, especially garments, many ask for an extra bag for keeps or other usage. And 'other usages' for neat plastic bags of stores and shops meant carrying your lunch tiffins to work in it, students put their books in it for going for tuitions, carrying snacks for picnics or using for further shopping. Sometimes there is no use for them. They just pile in your house.
Then to control the 'happy with plastic' feel, another plan was implemented by the Government on 1st July 2011. The retailers were to charge between Rs.1- 7 per plastic bag being handed out against the purchases made. The customer is asked if he/ she needs a plastic bag. This was supposed to be a pilot project in Mumbai before being implemented in entire India. The idea of implementing this was to make people feel the pinch and think twice before opting for a plastic bag. It would make them responsible and carry a cloth, jute carry- bag alongwith them. This made a difference initially. And to some sections. People have started using carry bags, fancy jute bags and jholas along for shopping. A lot of free and extra bags culture has stopped and even students prefer backpacks to plastic bags even if the number of books is less.
But all said and done, most Mumbaikars are mostly on the go and travelling long distances to work and their lives are fast and mostly traffic or train-time driven. Late work hours and sometimes long travel hours leave you to manage time as and when available. If we manage to leave a bit early, we might just go and shop for essentials or luxuries. We are also impulsive buyers. The working crowd is earning well. A trip for a movie might result in some shopping. Nothing is planned. Everything is time driven or impulsive. So its highly unlikely that one is carrying shopping bags or extra bags/ jholas for shopping. When you are asked at the counter whether you need a bag, only that time you realize that you should have carried one. And in highly inflation driven expensive city, a Rs 5/- hardly matters. You end up saying 'Yes' to a plastic bag. And instead of causing awareness and sense of responsibility amongst Mumbaikars, this move has only resulted in additional profits for retailers!
If this money collected out of plastic bag sale is put for a good 'Go Green' cause and the same is highlighted alongwith Green environment messages on pinboards and posters within shops and malls, this might create more awareness. People would relate purchase of plastic shopping bags with their purchases as a unhealthy and socially irresponsible practice. And Retailers should also be made to realize that all this implementation is for a good cause and not just to earn extra bucks. And made socially responsible to use these funds effectively. The change should come from within to make this drive successful.
With the correct awareness and a little push, we will go a long way. I've bought a few carry bags, but only sometimes carry them even when I go shopping on weekends. Only on reaching a cash counter, I say to myself, 'Oh shit!' I too need a little push...