The priority of handwash, hygiene along with getting the masses to wear a mask and maintain social distancing in a bid to keep the deadly coronavirus at bay, has led to a reversal of the state government’s efforts to phase out single-use plastic. With a stop on inspection and action, banned single-use plastic bags now make a comeback in markets across Mumbai amid pandemic.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is already putting a lot of efforts on segregating face masks, shields, protective gear and other hazardous waste finding their way into regular piles of garbage that enhances the risk of spreading the virus. Meanwhile, piling up of plastic disposables has added to the strain on the civic solid waste management (SWM) department which had to deal with the plastic waste discarded on roads and in drains or finds its way to landfills.
In June 2018, after the plastic ban came into effect in Mumbai, the civic body formed a 249-member plastic ban vigilance squad by requisitioning staff from other departments. These staff especially license inspectors from various sections and officials from the removal of encroachment department were pooled into the vigilance squad which went on the field raiding shops and establishments, seizing banned plastic and collecting fine from offenders.
Besides this, the BMC had placed 4X5 foot boxes painted in black as plastic collection boxes/counters at 25 different public places in all 24 administrative wards and one each in all 92 municipal markets across the city. However, the civic body's movement against plastic just stopped by the end of 2019.
"It was very impressive the way entire plastic band movement was taking up, the squads were regularly raiding offenders, banned plastic were seized and fines were collected. We have been reading in media about plastic collected by the civic body from time to time. After August 2019, the movement slowed down. And now it stopped completely it seems. This was our chance to completely eradicate the single-use plastic, it seems we have lost the battle, as I see single-use plastic being used everywhere in the markets," said Sunandini Patkar, resident of Sewri and a teacher.
The government had banned the use of disposable plastic, including plastic bags, cups, spoons, plates and tiffin containers, among others, in March 2018. It gave three months to users, retailers and manufacturers to get rid of such items, after which a ban came into effect on June 24, 2018.
As per Section 9 of the Maharashtra Non-biodegradable Garbage (Control) Act 2006, offenders will be fined up to Rs 5,000 for the first time and if the same person commits the offence for a second time will have to pay the penalty of Rs 10,000. And up to three months’ jail and a fine of Rs 25,000 every subsequent offence.
In June 2018, the BMC collected 1.42 lakh kg of banned plastic from across the city. A year after the ban on June 26, 2019, the civic body issued a statement revealing that its vigilance squads managed to collect Rs 3.47 crore as fine from offenders, besides lodging 489 FIRs against them in the span of one year.
"The movement did slow down, however on February 29, we decided to revive it by conducting raids and inspections across the city. In less than a week our teams seized 1,028 kg of the banned material and collected Rs 3.75 lakh as penalty amount from 4,081 hawkers, restaurants, shops and other establishments. The campaign was halted again with the onset of COVID-19 cases and staff being diverted on COVID-19 duty thereafter," said a senior BMC official.
“Right now COVID-19 is the priority. There was a whole campaign since 2018 and even last year, we had made great efforts and seized a huge amount of band plastics from offenders and from plastic bins stationed at all wards. However, as the pandemic hit the city, our priority changed, the staff was diverted to COVID related jobs. The virus has led to a large increase in the use of single-use plastic but we are up against a challenge and do not have the resources to take up the issue right now. However we are now gradually reviving the ban once again, so people using banned plastic will be penalised," the official added.