Vinod Mathew

THE battle against plastic, at least the `carry-bag' variety, is well and truly joined in Mumbai. Though the raids are yet to match the ferocity of those conducted on the dance bars, they are a far sight better than the crackdowns on the `massage parlours' that double as illegal brothels in tinsel town.

The city's municipal corporation, like any other government body, seems to have got carried away with the idea of enforcement and has not waited for the State government to come out with the requisite notification. The raids have begun, and plastic bags are hard to come by in retail outlets such as kirana stores and vegetable shops, though not yet in the malls.

The vegetable retailer now warns you against asking for a plastic bag, which, till a week back, he used to thrust into your hands. The rationale if copped, he will have to shell out Rs 5,000 while your fine is only Rs 1,000. Despite the lighter fine, you are suddenly uncertain, not wanting a routine vegetable purchase to cost Rs 1,150; it does not matter that the vendor would be down be down Rs 4,850 for selling you vegetables in plastic bag.

The future, minus plastic bags at vegetable markets would be a sight to behold scores of people making their way to their vehicles after unplanned shopping trips with a fistful of beans, ripe tomatoes clutched in the other hand threatening to burst, and an assortment of greens sticking out of the odd pocket. You visualise resourceful ladies finding alternative uses for their dupattas while hoping that habituated fish and meat buyers would go shopping with their own bags.

For those who have lived through prohibition days and have had dealings with the friendly neighbourhood bootlegger, all this cloak-and-dagger stuff would be nothing new. Still, the difference could not get any starker as the sum quotient of your day's labour a vegetable curry is a poor substitute for a stiff drink. You cannot be faulted for wondering whether the ban on plastic bags should not be micron-specific, as is the case world over. The authorities dispel any such notions, saying there is to be no thickness differentiation this time round; the only question asked is it a plastic bag?

Milk producers disdainfully say that pouches cannot be equated with the mundane carry bags; and warn of the logistical nightmare that any such ban would cause. Ditto, edible oil manufacturers, who threaten a regression to the days of hoarding and sale in adulterated form. Sachet manufacturers loftily claim insulation from the ban as, otherwise, a number of daily use products will either stop being consumed or will have to be sold, either loose or in bulk in the State.

"Imagine having to buy something like toothpaste in loose form or in bulk. And how about condoms, will they have to be stored in bulk and sold loose, given to the customer in folded paper.

Manufacturers of many such products will need to come out with fresh packaging strategies if they are to sell in plastic-free Maharashtra," a retailer said, shuddering at the prospect of a future minus the convenient plastic.

Can toothpaste and condoms, shampoos and chocolates ever be sold in Mumbai and other parts of the State minus the plastic wraps?

Given the muscle of the plastic manufacturers, any such move for a blanket ban can have one outcome a quiet burial. The other prospect is the government climbing down in the face of a series of litigations from plastic manufacturers.

One option, surely, would be to levy a surcharge on those using plastic bags. Even if the benchmark is raised to 30 microns or more, the public, so used to getting free plastic bags, may feel a trifle uneasy if they are asked to pay a few rupees extra for them, whether in grocery shop or at the mall. All this does not mean plastic bags will soon become extinct in Maharashtra, a leading producer, as the ban is only against use, and not against production.

Come September-end and one may get to see thousands of tonnes of plastic bags, otherwise consumed in the State, migrate beyond the borders. Clearly, it is shaping along the lines of the maxim: Let my front yard be clean, even at the expense of littering the neighbour's backyard.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 31, 2005)
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