Saturday, 25 June, 2011

Can we emerge from the chaos?

Govt bans plastic sachets for gutka, tobacco

With the Supreme Court taking an active position on use of plastics for packaging, the environment ministry banned the use of plastic in packaging of tobacco goods on Monday 7 February 2011. The ministry’s order, which also bans the free distribution of plastic bags by shopkeepers to their customers, is likely to most deeply affect the gutka, pan masala and other tobacco products industries that are sold in small sachets. The environment ministry’s decision came as part of new rules under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 to regulate use of plastic waste.

As usual in our country things are mixed up. In this case the tremendous occurrence and increase in mouth cancer caused by chewing gutka and pan masala and other tobacco products is being mixed up with the need to have legislation and enforcement on the use and recycling of packaging and all other forms of waste. Both the health and environment problems are huge.

The so-called solutions are also most likely band-aids for a deeper systemic problem with our polity and society. Why does it take a Supreme Court order to implement rules which were proposed by the Environment ministry in September 2009? On 2nd February 2011 the Supreme Court ordered  the government to notify the rules by the deadline it had set in December 2010. The bench headed by Justice GS Singhvi warned, “You [the government] would violate the court’s order at your peril.”

The ban does not completely ban plastic bags as some of the northern hill states have already done on their own. The new order only tries to regulate and limit their use. According to Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, “It is impractical and undesirable to impose a blanket ban on the use of plastic all over the country. The real challenge is to improve municipal solid waste management systems.

Of course, this makes the much in the news minister sound very modern and sensible. The question is whether we are really going to become more sensible and modern? How are industry and particularly the plastics and packaging industry going to respond? In my view, all of us need to take concerted action, citizens, consumers and industry. We cannot leave plastic recycling or any other type of waste handling to the government alone. We should be ahead of the government. And not continuously be in a position where our lack of consensus and action requires the Supreme Court to tell our government or us, what to do.                            
 Naresh Khanna (February 2011)

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