6 JUNE 2018
Life in plastic
On waste management framework
It’s far from fantastic India’s framework on discouraging its use is in disarray
As a major producer of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans, India is arguably the best place to host World Environment Day. Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan has said the government means business, and the UN theme, “Beat Plastic Pollution”, will not remain an empty slogan. His claim would have inspired greater confidence had India taken its own rules on waste management seriously. Both the Solid Waste Management Rules and the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016, which built on previous regulations, mostly remain on paper. State governments have simply not given them the necessary momentum, and the producers of plastic articles that are invariably used just for a few minutes have shown little concern about their negative environmental impact. The Centre’s somewhat liberal estimate shows over 60% of about 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste generated daily is collected. That essentially means a staggering 10,000 tonnes of trash is being released into the environment, a lot of it going into the sea. Also, not every piece of plastic collected by the system is scientifically processed. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system is on the UN map of 10 rivers worldwide that collectively carry the bulk of the plastic waste into the oceans. The effects are evident: they threaten marine life and the well-being of people, as microplastics are now found even in drinking water.
In their response to the crisis, communities and environmentally minded individuals are ahead of governments and municipal authorities. They segregate waste, compost at home, conduct “plastic free” social events and help recover materials that would otherwise just be dumped in the suburbs and wetlands. But, valuable as they are, voluntary efforts cannot achieve what systemic reform can. It is the Centre’s responsibility to ensure that the Environment (Protection) Act, the overarching law that enables anti-pollution rules to be issued, is implemented in letter and spirit. Ideally, regulation should help stop the manufacture of single-use plastic articles such as carry bags and cutlery, and encourage the use of biodegradable materials. There is a challenge here, though. The provisions of the Plastic Waste Management Rules require manufacturers of compostable bags to get a certificate from the Central Pollution Control Board, but this has not stopped counterfeit products from entering the market. Local bodies mandated under rules to ensure segregation, collection and transfer of waste to registered recyclers have spectacularly failed to fulfil their responsibilities. The State Level Monitoring Committees provided for under the rules have not been made accountable. The waste management framework is dysfunctional, and Mr. Vardhan’s assertions on beating plastic pollution alone will not inspire confidence. India and the world face a plastics crisis. Solving it will take more than slogans.
On foreign policy re-orientation
With his Shangri-La Dialogue address, the PM signals a foreign policy re-orientation
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, three of India’s most important partners in Southeast Asia, could not have come at a more important moment in Indian foreign policy positioning. In the past few months, the government has shifted considerably in its signalling, with Mr. Modi visiting China and Russia for informal summits with Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, respectively. The fact that these visits have taken place at a time the U.S. administration has sharpened its aim at China and Russia with sanctions and threats of a trade war suggests Mr. Modi is also attempting to moderate India’s strategic posturing on the global stage, and striving for a more balanced approach in what it increasingly sees as an uncertain world. India has also maintained its commitment to relations with the U.S. in order to build a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region, maintain the “international rules-based order”, and work together to combat terrorism and terror financing — as they have done more recently at the UN and the Financial Action Task Force. Meanwhile, India’s membership of both the Quadrilateral (with the U.S., Japan and Australia) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (the Russia-China-led grouping of Central Asian countries, whose summit Mr. Modi will attend this week) is also an indicator of the new balance that New Delhi seeks.
It is significant that in Singapore Mr. Modi chose the platform of the Shangri-La Dialogue of defence leaders of the Asia-Pacific region to emphasise Indian “strategic autonomy”. In his speech on the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” he referred to India’s relations with Russia, the U.S. and China. Given his government’s particular distaste for the term in the past, it is telling that Mr. Modi appeared to be channelling some of the “Bandung spirit of 1955” that led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, when he praised Singapore for teaching the world the importance of making “free and fair choices” and “embracing diversity at home”. “When nations stand on the side of principles, not behind one power or the other, they earn the respect of the world,” Mr. Modi said as he unveiled a seven-point vision for the Indo-Pacific region. While warning the world about the possible return of “great power rivalries”, he emphasised the importance and centrality of the ASEAN in the concept of the Indo-Pacific. The “principled” vision Mr. Modi projects is a departure from the transactionalism and pragmatism espoused by many in South Block over the last few years. However, it may also be a return to familiar moorings of Indian foreign policy, necessitated by what the Prime Minister identified as the “shifting plates of global politics and the fault lines of history”.