NEW DELHI — On Mumbai’s Versova beach, it was once hard to see the sand amid the endless sea of plastic bags and trash. The long stretch of coast had essentially turned into a dumping site until volunteers banded together to clean it up. A few months later, Olive Ridley turtles began nesting there for the first time in 20 years.
Now municipal authorities are taking a new step in the battle against the plastic waste that afflicts Mumbai and so many other cities across the country by criminalizing the use of plastic bags with fines of up to $366 and jail sentences for repeat offenders.
India actually has low per capita plastic consumption, just 11 kilograms (24 pounds), compared with Western countries, where up to 10 times that is consumed each year. But India's cities and water sources are visibly affected by plastic pollution. In Mumbai especially, the long coastline is plagued by floating plastic litter. During monsoons, when the seas rise and splash onto roads, piles of plastic trash litter the city's sidewalks and streets.
Authorities have already collected $5,000 in fines from 87 shops since the ban was enforced Saturday, and chains such as Starbucks and McDonald's have come under fire for failing to replace plastic packaging.
Mumbai is the largest Indian city to enforce the ban, joining a handful of countries such as Kenya and Rwanda that have introduced jail time for using plastic bags. Brought in by the state government of Maharashtra — home to 110 million people — the ban has huge potential to reduce India’s nearly 26,000 metric tons of daily plastic waste.
“Plastic is like a demon. We all must come together to kill it,” Maharashtra’s environment minister, Ramdas Kadam, said Monday.
The push toward reducing plastic is part of a national effort in India to clean up its cities and towns. In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on world leaders to curb environmental degradation and plastic pollution. “Plastic now threatens to become a menace to humanity. A lot of it never makes it to the recycling bin. Worse, a lot of it is non-biodegradable,” he said.
Critics, however, say the ban will hit small retailers and businesses the hardest.
Small roadside businesses and market vendors rely on plastic bags to package items in markets. Viren Shah, president of the Federation of Retail Traders Welfare Association, told the Mumbai Mirror that 300,000 small businesses in the city have seen their sales drop by about 50 percent since the ban. And there is confusion about which plastics are allowed and which are not, the federation said.
Shah said about 2,000 small shops were forced to close during the weekend, and huge quantities of perishables, such as milk, yogurt and juice, were wasted as retailers feared being slapped with penalties.
Small business owners are tallying up their losses and may go on strike Wednesday until the government heeds their concerns, Shah said. “We had written letters to the government stating all grocery stores would buy back the recyclable plastic from the customers at Rs 2 [about 3 cents] but these suggestions were not taken,” he said, according to the Hindustan Times.
Residents and businesses in Mumbai were given a three-month period starting in March to phase out the usage of plastic bags and find sustainable alternatives instead.
Plastic is the latest target in Modi’s Clean India program, which also aims to tackle India’s huge sanitation and public cleanliness problems through vast public awareness campaigns urging citizens to call out fellow Indians for littering or defecating in the open.
Some argue that the campaign has become overzealous and ill-mannered.
In one recent controversial incident, a Bollywood actress shamed a Mumbai resident for littering. “Why are you throwing plastic on the road?” she is seen asking, in a video posted online by her husband, India’s national cricket captain Virat Kohli.
The man replied in a Facebook post, decrying Anushka Sharma’s behavior. “The garbage that mistakenly went out of the window of my luxury car ... was way less than the garbage that came out from your mouth,” he said.
The man has reportedly served the actress with a legal notice.