Tue, Oct 30, 2018 - Page 9 News List

‘No questions, no excuses’: The squad enforcing Mumbai’s ban on plastic

Shopkeepers and vendors fear a hefty fine from inspectors who are tasked with keeping the Indian city free of plastic bags

By Amrit Dhillon, MUMBAI, India  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

At 10am on a muggy October morning, Crawford Market, one of Mumbai’s oldest, was stirring into life.

In a first-floor office inside the complex, the feared “blue squad” had assembled, forming a semi-circle around their boss, Anand Shinde, who was pumping them up.

At 10:30am, the phalanx, dressed in blue uniforms, hurried down the wooden staircase and hit the streets around the market.

Their target: shopkeepers and street vendors using plastic bags.

The blue squad — middle-aged and graying — might not look intimidating, but their weapon, a hefty 5,000 rupee (US$68) fine, has reduced grown men to begging, they said.

They move swiftly, striding into shops, rifling under the counter and, if they find plastic bags, impose a fine on the shopkeeper.

“No questions. No excuses. We don’t accept any bullshit. The fine is immediate and paid in cash on the spot,” squad member Annie George said sternly. “However, our goal is not to punish, but to make people aware. We met street hawkers and told them, don’t do it for us, do it for your children.”

From Starbucks and McDonald’s to tiny street food stall owners, no one is exempt from the ban on single-use plastic, introduced on June 30 by the authorities in the state of Maharashtra and in its capital, Mumbai.

The ban was prompted by vast quantities of plastic rubbish clogging up the already blocked drains during this year’s monsoon.

Most other Indian cities are scarred by mountains of plastic, but Mumbai, with its 20 million people concentrated on a tiny island, experiences near-catastrophic disruption during the monsoon, when sewers and drains fail to cope with the rain.

The ban prohibits the use of plastic bags, disposable cups and plates, and bottles under a certain size.

A walk through Crawford Market shows that some shopkeepers have either switched voluntarily to paper bags or learned the hard way.

“It hurt me to pay that massive fine. I was upset for days,” dried fruits seller Zahir Hussain said.

In Colaba, a popular street market, Varun Seth has discarded the plastic pouches he used to wrap jewelry in favor of tiny paper bags. On the roadside next to him, a vendor wraps fruit in newspaper — not so easy.

“It’s difficult for customers to carry fruit home this way, but if that’s the law then I guess it’s for our own good and that of our children,” he said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to make India free of single-use plastic by 2022.

Most of the country’s 29 states have a full or partial ban, but public awareness is low and the law is rarely enforced. That is why the diligence of the blue squad has attracted attention.

Vasant Patel, the owner of Beauty Basics cosmetic store opposite Crawford Market, pleaded ignorance.

“I was told these bags are okay,” he said, pointing to a kind of bag that looks like cloth, but is in fact plastic.

“And surely I should be given some notice?” he asked George and her colleague, Smita Chandane.

“That’s what they all say. They all say they didn’t know what was allowed. Well, after he’s paid the fine, he will know all right,” Chandane said.

It was the same story at the beauty parlor next door. Tahir Motwala looked sheepish when George and Chandane found piles of plastic bags, even though he had displayed two paper carrier bags on a shelf behind the till.

George said this is a popular tactic: Prominently display paper bags, while keeping plastic bags under the counter.

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