Delhi’s plastic bag and gutka ban: keep chewing it over
The Delhi government’s ban on plastic bags and gutka — the cheap mix of chewing tobacco and betel nut that you take for a quick high — is a welcome step, but it may be too soon to imagine city corners free of gutka “graffiti” and plastic-choked sewers.
Plastic bags lie strewn in city alleys, clogging drainage pipes, harming cows that eat them along with the garbage that they nibble on, and offer a prime breeding ground for harmful bacteria and disease.
Gutka, meanwhile, has an estimated 65 million users in India and causes tens of thousands of oral cancer cases every year.
People who don’t chew it have to deal with the nasty red mix of saliva and used gutka all over the street and the walls when they’re walking. People who do chew it, especially poorer people, find it an easy fix for a few rupees or less. Ban the trade, and watch it move underground. There’s always a way for a pot smoker to get what he needs, and there’s no reason to expect any difference with gutka.
When it comes to plastic bags, alternatives aren’t as cheap, but people tend to not mind flouting what they consider “nanny-state” laws if the fines aren’t that high. After all, paying the fine might be easier for some than hunting for a jute bag.
Enforcing bans also will be tough because there are plenty of states in India without such restrictions. A central government ban would make a bigger difference, but whether state governments would play along is another matter entirely.
The alcohol ban in Gujarat has been in effect for half a century, and has given rise to a huge underground market, and bootleggers find new ways to move their product.
And what about plastic? The latest ban on the manufacturing, storage and use of plastic looks more stringent than the previous attempt in 2009, which failed because of poor implementation and loopholes.
Making bans of bad things work depends on changing people’s habits. Some people use paper bags or cloth bags for grocery shopping, but doing the right thing for the environment is something that people tend to do more when they are wealthy enough to have the luxury to think about it.
There are millions of people in the New Delhi region who don’t fit that profile. In India’s capital, plastic bags never disappeared in shops and grocery stores after the initial fear of fines and punishment after the 2009 ban.
And what if people’s habits do change en masse? Manufacturers still use plastic for all sorts of things, and most of it that winds up in public hands doesn’t get recycled in India, even though many people understand that it should. Sometimes there are no facilities, sometimes people just don’t bother.
Much depends on civic sense, and the desire to change the way one is used to living. If that doesn’t work, you need real fines and real punishment, something that probably will cause more anger than the pollution problem to begin with. And the search for a cleaner Delhi continues.