Uttarakhand: Amid the horror of floods, the flood of plastic

The country has seen the graphic visuals and substantial descriptions of the horror after the cloud burst in Uttarakhand. It has also seen the disciplined conduct of the victims who waited in queues to board the Indian Air Force helicopters, perhaps thanks to the presence of the Indian Army.

The verbal and physical scuffle between politicians to corner glory, accuse each of politicising – what else to expect when the media is ready to suck in their comments that they were more important than the rescue and subsequent relief, and play it up – have not been few and far between.

Now, even as relief and rehabilitation efforts start, there will hopefully be a proper watch on what is happening without  wild hype. And even some good news has started trickling out.

If stories of holy men being caught with money and jewels stolen from pilgrims made you grimace, the one of Ganeshpur’s grocer, Pushpa Singh and her friends feeding 800 stranded twice a day on their own account gave one hope that good things are indeed possible. Elsewhere, the locals we have heard little about are helping with the cremations.

Indians are all litter bugs: AFP

Indians are all litter bugs: AFP

Amidst this, this yesterday morning’s The Times of India had two stories, side by side on the same page which should make us think. One was of a German woman and her son, remaining in Rishikesh to gather the litter, mostly plastic, left behind by those who were there. In Dehradun, an English woman and her band are keeping areas around the helipads clean.

Hopefully, Pushpa Singh does not sell what she stocks in plastic bags unlike in supermarkets, but provides them loose as of yore such as when the local grocer packed them in paper cones after the weighing. Possibly, being a village, people buy loose produce and plastics are not a fact in Ganeshur unlike what we see in supermarkets where a bunch of coriander has to be stuffed in a plastic bag because it has to be barcoded.

The first report said in Rishikesh, a transit point for evacuees, litter is an issue, because “Dustbins are brimming, people are throwing plastic bottles in storm-water drains and the sites are marked by half-eaten eatables while paper plates are littered all over.” Perhaps the distressed scrambling for their lives cannot be expected to be civic conscious, but that is a generous notion.

What these NGOs cleaning up the garbage are doing is commendable, something that should be emulated across India, with the better option of not littering at all, the second being minimising the use of plastic.

But the fact that there is such a need for them to clean up is as horror-filled as the horrific floods itself. They are mindful of the environment, we are not. The idea that the imperishable plastic is a hazard and not just an eyesore never enters our heads.

For, we Indian are litter-bugs by wont and we know it, but refuse to change. When we see heaps of muck thrown by us, and also not enough of it picked up by the municipalities, we hardly ever file even a complaint. It is a habit, both as individuals, communities and as well as city governments, that we unfortunately take in our stride. Once thrown out, garbage is not our – or anyone’s concern.

It tells a lot about the unrestrained Indian ways of throwing garbage just about everywhere. The culture is to keep the kitchens clean but chuck the muck out the window, surroundings be damned. Add the civic bodies’ inability and disinclination of civic bodies to ensure proper collection and disposal and you know why most places appear to be drowning in plastic.

Since the advent of plastic, especially bags, we have also become absolutely careless about how we buy things. The people’s culpability apart, there is a whole lot of reasons why commercial interests have also promoted them under the pretext of convenience. Each and everything comes in plastic bags, though of permitted thickness.

You see them strewn about everywhere in the country, along the roadsides, railway tracks and in between the tracks in stations which too have a budget and manpower for keeping the premises clean. In any vacant spot, river and lakesides, they are so ubiquitous, we have stopped wondering if the laws were even made.

India banned the production of bags less than 20 micron thick and cities have tried to discourage the use of such bags, but never actually enforced; just go to pick up a sprig of curry leaves from the local green grocer and he hands it over in a bag of less than 20 micron. They choke the drains, end up in cows’ stomachs and give business to contractors who claim to unclog them and raise bills.

The actual quantum of plastic – we are talking of high-density polyethylene - generated across the country is not known, but a few statistics from a few random cities would give a picture of sorts. In August 2009, the Chennai city chief, Rajesh Lakhoni was quoted as saying of the 3,400 tonnes of garbage, the city daily generated , 35 to 40 tons was plastic waste, most of it plastic bags.

Thane, a city of just about two million, threw away over 92 tonnes of plastic trash daily and has “little scope for proper disposal” for the city does not even have a dumping ground. Eleven tonnes of this plastic waste comprises carry bags and other packing material. Milk pouches, oil cans, cosmetic packaging materials accounted for 7 tonnes.

But one thing is for sure.

There are brave, optimistic eco-warriors who do not cease their battle against plastic garbage but know that along with the people, the civic bodies which ought to spot and fine users of the prohibited thin bags are in perpetual slumber. The civic minded volunteers try to educate people, schools run programmes and on Green Day, we talk of it. But what about other plastic for not all finds its way to the recycler?

Updated Date: Jun 28, 2013 12:11 PM

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