Our hollow commitments and a future of plastic trees

By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. Dated: 7/7/2018 11:30:19 PM

"Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky, We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness."
—Kahlil Gibran
A fascinating and inspiring peoples' campaign to save Delhi's 16,500 trees from being axed to make way for road widening projects and setting up seven new neighbourhoods has taken a successful turn with the Delhi high court indefinitely banning felling of trees. Last month, in yet another significant move, the Indian government pledged to ban all single-use plastics by 2022, after 18 states of the country announced a ban on plastics that immensely contributes to toxifying the air in urban India.
Right noises, however, necessarily do not mean that we would no longer be looking into a bleak future where our trees would be formed of plastic, our homes - plush or small shanties - would float in a sea of plastic waste and rivers would be drowned under the debris of untreated plastics and disappearance of trees. That nightmare still remains a real threat due to policies related to environment that are not holistic and implementation that is weak.
Indian cities generate 25,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste every day. Only 40 percent (official estimates 60 percent) of this is collected and recycled while the rest ends up in garbage dumps, drains, streets and ends up in river beds. The country accounts for 60% of plastic waste dumped into the world's oceans every year.
Jammu and Kashmir is one of the 18 states to have banned the use of polythene bags and is a fine sample to show the failure of the ban in existence. A quick glance around oneself is enough to convince that the ban remains on paper. There is no awareness on the ground and even many educated elite are not aware of its existence. The awareness campaigns are either lax or do not exist. In many other states the ban is coupled with confusion about permissible grades of polythene. It is not clear whether the ban includes banners, buntings, plates, cups and spoons etc along with carry bags. In Maharashtra, milk pouches, wrappers for processed food, dustbin liners, packs for medicines, solid waste and agricultural products, and polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottles are exempted from this ban. The state is also mooting the idea of enhancing cost of saleable commodities in PET bottles with a scheme that extra cost would be refunded after return of bottle which would then be used for recycling. Whether or not, that could be effective in reducing the burden of plastics remains to be seen.
More importantly, in the absence of other alternatives as well as lack of awareness, the demand for polythene bags is pretty much widespread. This demand is further enhanced because the plastic manufacturing units have not been banned, barring in few states like Maharashtra and Karnataka. Even in these states, the ban remains ineffective so far.
A major gap between the ban and its effective implementation remains the complex procedure of enforcement. With no clear mandate given to any authority to enforce the ban and take punitive action, the buck is passed from one agency and authority to the other. Forget the absence of a robust system in place, the accountability factor and independent assessment of the effectiveness of enforcement is also missing. In states where all plastic bags are banned, the official structure authorises very few officials to fine violators, which makes enforcement difficult. Hardly anyone is fined. Much worse, if such a system were to be implemented effectively, it would just backfire and may even prove to be unfair and unjust. With fines fixed at as high as Rs 500 to Rs 25,000 by some states for users of polythene bags, and punitive action fixed at up to 5 years imprisonment for its storage and distribution, how is a poor man carrying a banned polythene bag to be fined for a law he is not even aware of? In a country, where the mere possession of meat in the house of minority community members can invite lynching by hoodlums who are quick to invoke beef row, it is anybody's guess how such laws can be used as weapons of vendetta.
A larger reason why the ban on plastics would remain a sham is because it completely exempts political parties and big industrial houses. Political parties use plastic banners, buntings and other banned plastics to the hilt in their rallies and this use may be manifold in run up to 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The industrial houses send their products in the market wrapped in multi-laminated packaging which is basically plastic lined with foil. These plastics are not covered by the ban. Things like chocolate bar wrappers, chips packets and other products that use plastics for wrapping will continue to be sold and wrappers will continue to litter streets, parks and river beds despite the ban. The business models of excess production and profits that these are produced on will eventually be a far greater threat to the environment.
So, like all policies, the ban on plastics targets the poor and middle class and skips the rich elite and the political class.
Similarly, the approach to felling of trees for development projects such as road widening, creation of colonies and business enterprises is concerned, is dictated by the greed of the elite and the myopia of the political class or their own pecuniary and political benefits. The civil society campaign in Delhi would be a flop show if it does not continue and spread to the other parts of the country. That people were unwilling to buy the government theory of planting an equal number of tree saplings shows churnings of an awakening and this imbues a bit of optimism. The campaign forced the courts to intervene and ask the vital question of how saplings could replaced trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. Past experiences have shown that despite such assurances from government, not even a fraction of trees that are uprooted are planted. A recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on Delhi found that between 2015 and 2017, the forest department was supposed to plant 65,090 trees. Instead, it managed to plant only 21,048 - a shortfall of 68%. Agencies such as the NHAI, NBCC, DDA, PWD and municipal corporations cut 14,599 trees between 2014 and 2017. They were supposed to plant 1,07,326 trees as compensation, but the CAG report states that only 42,956 were actually planted - a deficit of 60%. Statistics alone are not enough. What is being planted as a substitute is equally important. A common practice is to replace native species of fully grown canopied trees with plantation of ornamentals and non-native species. But what dampens the optimism generated by Delhi's Chipko moment are news reports that have begun revealing that despite the court ban, felling of trees illegally at night is still on.
It doesn't take rocket science to figure out how profitable it is for some to carry on development works over the slaughter of trees or for big business enterprises to reap easy profits by packaging their goods in cheap plastics and by getting away despite contributing vastly to the toxic plastic dumps they pile up without scientific treatment. As long as this flawed development model is allowed to exist, we may as well get ready to breathe the suffocating air of plastics instead of the oxygen from the trees.



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