New Delhi: A longer than expected economic slowdown and rising unemployment have forced the Modi government to drag its feet on its proposal to impose a blanket ban on single-use plastic.
The prime minister in his Independence Day speech last year had promised to crack down on single-use plastic from 2 October 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, as part of broader efforts to completely ban it by 2022.
Soon after the announcement, state-owned institutions such as Indian Railways and Air India banned the use of single-use plastic, which can’t be recycled, but a push-back from the sector meant that the 2 October date passed without any announcement.
Since then, the government has held a few meetings with stakeholders but has done little to curb the use of single-use plastic.
A highly-placed source in the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) told ThePrint that for now, the states have been left to take steps to ban single-use plastic at their level.
“It (the ban) is already in place in several states,” the source said. “The central government, however, is not taking any national-level initiative on this issue. Suggestions were sought from NGOs and other civil society organisations. The work is going on to accommodate them.”
A second source in the CPCB said the government was delaying the decision due to the state of the economy.
“If any decision is taken without due deliberation, it will impact jobs,” the source said. “And this will have an impact on the economy. We had set up some parameters and we are looking at enforcing the ban according to those parameters,” the source added.
“Discussions are on about the options available once the ban of single-use plastic comes into force,” another CPCB source said. “Any decision taken in a hurry might impact employment.”
ThePrint reached Divya Sinha, head of the CPCB’s plastics division, through phone and SMS seeking her comment for this report but there was no response until the time of publishing.
‘No concrete action’
Several stakeholders told ThePrint that the government has not come up with anything concrete with regard to banning single-use plastic.
Hiten Bheda, former chairman of the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association (AIPMA) and currently a member of the association’s environment committee, confirmed to ThePrint that only a few meetings have been held.
“The government’s campaign to ban plastic has petered down. Several meetings were held before Gandhi Jayanti but after it, only one or two meetings have taken place on this issue,” he said.
“In one of these meetings, deliberations were held on how to recycle plastic products. All of us have submitted our suggestions on the issue. We have demanded a holistic policy on the plastic ban.”
He added that the Modi government has left it to the states to tackle the issue.
“Some states are currently working on banning SUP at their own level. As of now, the Centre is doing nothing on its own,” Bheda said. “The CPCB has also issued directions that states should take steps at their own level. Due to this, the state governments are taking some small steps towards banning single-use plastic.”
Swati Singh Sanyal of the Centre for Science and Environment told ThePrint that the Modi government is yet to ban anything related to plastic.
“To implement the ban, the government will have to first properly define single-use plastic in the Indian context,” she said. “After Gandhi Jayanti, only one or two meetings have taken place on the issue. The government is still working on the guidelines; it has not been able to go beyond this.”
Sanyal further said that the government should look for available alternatives of plastic products if a blanket ban is imposed.
“But no serious work appears to be going on in this direction as well,” she said. “Apart from this, the government also needs to create a detailed roadmap on how a decision to implement nationwide ban on plastic, if ever announced, will be implemented on a national scale.”
Divya Tiwari of NGO Sahas, which is pushing for the ban, echoed the sentiments.
“The government has expressed its intent to completely ban single-use plastic by 2022 but it has not yet developed any concrete plans regarding this,” she said.
“We have received no information about what the government has been doing about banning plastic since 2 October,” she added. “Most of the plastic is generated by the FMCG sector. So the government should bring in a policy to regulate them. It will be helpful in banning plastic.”
The plastic industry
One of the reasons for the Modi government’s softening stand could be the sheer size of the industry, analysts and industry sources said.
According to a Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM) and consultancy firm Ernst and Young report, the packaging industry — the highest user of plastic — is estimated to be worth around Rs 5.15 lakh crore in the 2019-20 fiscal year.
The packaging industry accounts for 35 per cent of all plastic used in the country and is followed by the building sector (23%), transport (8%), electronics (8%), agriculture (8%) and other sectors (18%).
Sanyal of the CSE told ThePrint that “50-60 per cent of the plastic industry is in the informal sector”.
“Lakhs are employed by this industry. And if these are shut down we will see its impact on the economy,” she said. “People’s jobs will be impacted. As this will have a direct bearing on the economy.”
Bheda of the AIPMA said that currently there are over 50,000 functional plastic manufacturing industrial units functional providing employment to 4 to 5 million people.
“If the government takes up a step without thorough consideration, it will have to face a lot of problems,” Bheda said. “Some, six lakh people could lose their jobs and this will have a big impact on the economy.”
The plastic industries, according to the ASSOCHAM and Ernst and Young report, generate single-use plastic worth 90 lakh tonnes every year. This includes gutkha pouches, plastic carry bags, small bottles, straws, Tumblers and various other smaller cutlery.
The reports adds that the industry is only set to grow due to the growing presence of e-commerce platforms and organised retail, which have boosted the requirement for single-use plastic.