To ban or not to ban single use plastics in total

LH Thangi Mannen

The Government of Nagaland, through the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) is organising a major state wide social work on 4th May 2019. The purpose of this social work is to mitigate the onslaught of disasters (natural and man-made) that may occur with the arrival of the next monsoon. Last year the state had witnessed an unprecedented series of disaster which was spread throughout the state. As per the reports of SDMA , 13.10% of the total population of Nagaland was effected, with some district completely cut off from others for days. These landslides and flash floods affected thousands of people and the SDMA estimated that Rs.800 crores was required for repairing the damages. Out of this requirement only Rs.130 crores was received from the Government of India, as central assistance, so far. A state-wise analysis by scientists shows that in future, the magnitude of floods is also likely to increase by about 25 per cent in Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, parts of Meghalaya and Nagaland. To what extend these occasional social works will really curtail the onslaught of the next monsoon, is to be seen.

While many reasons can be attributed to these disasters in a fragile mountain state like Nagaland, much of these, to a large extent are man-made. It is not just nature’s fury, but sheer disregard for the environment that has also amplified the scale of destructions that floods have caused. Urban floods are entirely manmade with poorly maintained drains, Plastic Bags/debris, shrinking open space and climate change contributing to accumulation of water on roads etc. after a heavy down pour. Rapid migration to urban areas and the lackadaisical attitude to civic responsibility are among the factors that attribute to cities/towns coming to a standstill after heavy rains.

There is a need for taking some drastic steps in certain areas that are within our control. One of this is to reduce the consumption of plastics, especially of the “single use kind”- plastic bags, irrespective of its thickness, disposable dining wares and the small water pet bottles. These are the garbage that finds its way into the drains and rivers in the state. They clog the drains /rivers, blocking not only the smooth flow of water but also contaminating the rivers. Plastic bags are often filled with all sorts of garbage and flung into drains and streams, as per the convenience of many and with total disregard to the surroundings and its consequences. In the cities of Dimapur and Kohima, the Government has taken up the construction of proper drainages, but if the throw away habits into these infrastructures does not abate, a major catastrophe is waiting for us.

How many social works will really stop the irresponsible behaviour of the people? As in a matter of few days a new pile of garbage re-appears again, and remains till the next cycle of social work. Very often some youth groups take up the cause of cleaning up, to be littered again. Cleaning the mess of others is not a solution that will sustain. There is a need to make people aware to meet the larger goal of cleanliness at all times and in all places.

If the public cannot respect the environment and their surroundings, the only alternative/solution is to completely ban all single use disposable plastic items. The Government and some Municipal bodies had, as way back as in 2011 and 2014 imposed the ban on plastic bags below 40 micron. In Dimapur, licences to only 4/5 manufacturers was given, but plastic bags below the specified microns are still found and used in abundance. Areas/ localities outside the municipal jurisdiction in Dimapur too, continue to supply/distribute plastic bags of lesser thickness. This ban was reiterated as recent as November 2018 (50 microns) but there is still no reduction in the availability of all kinds of plastic bags/single use plastics. There is a total disregard to Government directions, and this should be taken as a challenge by the authorities concern. Sufficient time has been given to both the manufacturers/traders and the public to make the transition. This is also a clear indication that as long as there are conditions/loopholes in government direction, unscrupulous elements will always exist and it will be impossible to ensure the effectiveness to any restrictions. It is surprising to find that even many government departments are themselves defaulters in implementing these restrictions. Many of the outposts in the districts not even aware of the existence of these ban notification or any policy decisions of the government. This is the sorry state of affairs in our state.

When the issue of total ban is brought up, the most frequented question is “what is the alternative?”Really? Are we that concern about public convenience or about the larger issue of pollution? Which is impacting us more severely and more negatively? Will the public not buy groceries and other essentials if there are “no alternatives?”Let’s be realistic. People will continue to shop as before and will find their own alternatives out of necessity. As the saying goes “necessity is the mother of invention”. The same can be said about business establishments. Human ingenuity to adapt to situations should not be undermined or overlooked. When the need for something becomes imperative, we are forced to find ways of getting or achieving it. As long as these single use items are made available the life style changes required will never take place for the majority of the people. Choices are rarely made for the right reasons. Sometimes, there is a need for stricter measures to ensure complete compliance. Much depends on the political willingness of our law makers to bring about sticker restrictions and effectively enforcing it.

Many countries and some states in India has imposed total ban on single use plastic. In some countries it is the public pressure / youth activists that had forced the government to ban plastic bags. In Nagaland too, anyone who is concern about the state of our land and the untold damages that single use plastics is inflicting on our environment, land, water, animals and humans and our meagre resources, will understand the need to do without these items. There may be a little inconvenience initially, but these are not life threatening. It is only a matter of adjustments, and alternatives will come along as per the needs and demands of the public. Already some entrepreneurs are in the process of providing these alternatives. The only problem is will there be sufficient demand for these alternatives. Let it not be a case of the chicken and egg story. Which should come first?

Sometimes the public also need to take the lead in voicing their concern on matters of public interest and wellbeing, and not remain silent spectators to the changing and challenging needs of the time. A conscious society is a progressive society.

It is time now, that the Government take a firm decision on the total ban of single use plastics, without conditions. Penalties should also be imposed on habitual defaulters. Strict regulations should also be made, to ensure that plastics do not find their way into drains and rivers. Public awareness and sensitization activities should be intensified. The state had witnessed our vulnerability to disaster, causing significant budgetary pressures with both short term fiscal impacts and wider long term development implications. The state is yet to recover fully from last year’s disaster, and if predications are to believed we may never recover. The issue to “To Ban or not to Ban all single use plastics in total” must be seen in the context of which is the “bigger dilemma”.