Atanu Dey On India's Development

Banning Plastic Bags

“What about the morons?”

“Ah. Morons never do the wrong thing. They get their reasoning wrong. Like the fellow who says all dogs are pets and all dogs bark, and cats are pets, too, and therefore cats bark. Or that all Athenians are mortal, and all the citizens of Piraeus are mortal, so all the citizens of Piraeus are Athenians.”

“Which they are.”

“Yes, but only accidentally. Morons will occasionally say something that’s right, but they say it for the wrong reason.”

That piece of dialog is from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Earlier in the dialog between Belbo and Casaubon, Belbo claims that “there are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics” and that a normal person is “just a reasonable mix of these components, these four ideal types.”

I am persuaded that politicians in India are not normal people in the sense Belbo means it. They are an unreasonable mix of the ideal types, mostly moronic. What got me thinking about this was the ban on plastic bags that is scheduled to go into effect in Maharashtra next week.

Here is what happened. End of July saw not only unusually heavy rains – a cloudburst, actually – in Mumbai, but also record high tides. Mumbai, never having an efficient storm drainage system, succumbed to massive flooding and millions lost property and hundreds died as well.

Now comes the moronic reasoning. You see garbage everywhere in the streets in Mumbai. Garbage has plastic bags. Uncollected garbage lying in the streets can block drains during a storm. So ban the plastic bags around the state of Maharashtra to avoid flooding in the city of Mumbai.

If you will permit me a brief digression at this point. You may ask, why are we ruled by morons? Sweetheart, we are ruled by morons and cretins because the vast majority of us are morons and cretins. If we were not, it would not be possible for our elected leaders to be morons and cretins. In other words, we cannot be a population of enlightened beings and somehow end up with morons and cretins as the rulers. Conversely, an enlightened leadership cannot arise from a population largely consisting of cretins and morons. Leadership is endogenous to the population, especially in what is popularly called a “democracy.” George W. Bush, for instance, is a cretin and he rules because there is a majority in the US sufficiently moronic and cretinous to have elected him as their Dear Leader. Leaders are endogenous to the population and reflect the dominant traits of the population they govern. But then you may say, what about Clinton? He was not stupid. And a majority of pretty much the same population voted for Clinton in two elections! How did this happen? Well, my precious, just like individuals, populations change too. Sometimes the change is sufficient on the margin for the majority of the moronic to dictate the rulers and the rules.

Anyhow getting back to plastic bags and their bans by the morons that rule Maharashtra.

Banning plastic bags does not do away with the real problem. The problem is, first, there is too much garbage, and second that the garbage is not being properly disposed of. Indeed, the ban will cause a greater use of tetra packs which are more expensive and bulky and they will actually increase the volume of garbage produced. It will enrich the makers of tetra packs and I wonder if there is some sort of a kick-back deal between them and the ruling cretins.

I accept that the ruling cretins cannot understand the system they have the power to influence. But what I cannot understand is this: don’t they have intelligent advisors? Can’t they seek the counsel of people of normal intelligence? For instance, if I were asked, I would immediately propose an alternative to the idiotic banning of plastic bags.

The mechanism that I would recommend is simple. For every plastic bag manufactured, collect a disposal fee. Let’s say it is Re 0.10. This fee gets passed on to the consumers – the people who ultimately decide whether to accept a plastic bag at the store or to bring their own re-usable bag, the people who decide whether to chuck the plastic bags on the streets after use, etc. The next step is to have collection centers where for every plastic bag turned in, Re 0.08 is returned.

What happens if this method is used? First, the number of plastic bags used will go down. Simple econ 101: price goes up, quantity demanded goes down. This is good for the economy since plastic bags are made out costly petroleum.

Second, discarded plastic bags are a source of income for those who take the trouble to collect them and turn them in. From what I have seen in Mumbai, in a couple of hours, one can collect 500 of them and thus make Rs 40 by turning them in. My conjecture is that following this sort of scheme, you will not find a single plastic bag in the streets of Mumbai.

The benefits of this scheme: it is revenue neutral. What the state collects in fees, it pays out in collected plastic bags. The user is charged a little more and this charge goes to the people who make a living out of picking up the plastic trash from the streets. The scheme also reduces the use of plastic bags and encourages conservation by promoting re-usable bags.

Practically every problem we see around us admits a market solution. Get the incentives right and the market will figure out the most efficient way of solving the problem. On the other hand, banning is the strategy of the failed Nehruvian ideology of command and control. It will not work and will make matters worse. They will encourage corruption and bribery. The police will use the ban as a baton to beat the shopkeepers with to extract even more than they already do.

Sad really. It is all karma, neh?

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  • http://www.samudai.org piyushgupta

    Atanu,

    Another of your commonsensical idea. On the ideas of incentives, I am currently reading Freakonomics by Steven Levitt, which I am sure you must have already read. A large chunk of public policies can be implemented by the right incentives, if only our policy makers really want to make the change.

  • http://http:onlyvoid.blogspot.com Shivani

    categories : “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics”.

    does one need to be ignorant before becoming wiser?

  • http://www.MykesWeblog.com Myke

    Mark Twain couldn’t construct a better absurdity.

  • http://www.wadias.in/site/arzan/blog/ arzan

    Atanu

    Well said. U touch a very poignant point, about kickbacks.

    Now you gotta be careful…because the plastic bag mafia is coming to get you, for destroying their livelihood.

  • kuffir

    who is going to collect 0.10p per bag ?
    you’d have to create a new department, perhaps a new ministry, to do that. just think of the transactions involved, both in collecting the penal charges and in paying out the for the returned bags. how do you count lumpy, sticky,smelly, balled together plastic bags ? and who’d man the collection points- additional babus from additional departments ? you will have to collect the penal charges from the manufacturers – what makes you think a.all manufacturers will comply b. they will pay up on all bags they manufacture (isn’t it the norm to pay taxes for much less than you actually produce) ? who would monitor the unlicensed manufacturers ? wouldn’t the unlicensed manufacturers (shall we call them ‘illicit’ in the manner of ‘illicit arrack distillers) have an unfair advantage over the ‘licit’ manufacturers ? given the babus ingenuity in promoting ‘indigenous’ industry, wouldn’t the manufacturers find it much cheaper to pay up the babus a cut in return for ignoring false disclosure of volumes? what you are suggesting mr.dey is not a solution but the creation of a whole new range of institutions, and between plastic bags and the new crop of ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘babus’ this would spawn, i prefer plastic bags.

  • http://chennaikaran.blogspot.com plus ultra

    Having been accused of inaction during the crisis, the Govt obviously wants to redeem some image, by being seen to be doing something – anything- rather than nothing. Announce a 12000 crore scheme to build a new drainage system, which will take decades to see the light of day, if at all. Ban plastic. There was similar reaction by MSEB to the energy crisis. Announce the setting up of 3000 MW plants, with not even the rudimentary plan in place. Claim that captive power producers will sell to the grid ( not 1 kwhr has been pumped in so far ). Revive Dabhol, cutting all corners. These knee-jerk initiatives are quite par for the course.

  • Nitin

    I sort of agree with kuffir on some points. The more complicated the rules, the more complex the bureaucracy required to implement them. There is no 100% foolproof solution to the problem, but as someone who hates plastic bags, I’d rather see an outright ban. There is nothing wrong with people buying a few cloth or jute bags for the household and using and reusing them whenever you go shopping. Its usually the middle/upper class that consume so much plastic anyway. Ireland and I think Australia too has a plastic bag tax of some sort; however, in a corrupt society such as India, taxing your way out of a problem may not work.
    Taxes can easily be dodged so when you ban something…its in some ways ‘more’ transparent.

    However, something as drastic as this should be done in phases; start immediately with the big boys (Shoppers Stop, Big Bazaar etc) and work your way eventually to the bottom (fruit & veg vendors). Unfortunately, the most urgent problem is actually with those ultra-thin plastic bags used by fruit & veg vendors; these bags can’t be reused as they are so thin and just end up snagged on trees or in drains. But I’d hate to just penalise these poor vendors….so give them time to change and come next monsoon, we might see some results.
    We all know what the long term solutions are (waste disposal strategies, better drainage infrastructure etc), but we can’t wait forever until these emerge.

  • Vijay

    Well, I think the idea of involving money/taxing for use of plastic helps … so I agree with the author … and I do agree that we are so used to the plastic that it is tough to remove it from our day to day needs … so only way is to gradually decrease it. One more thing to note is that the use of plastic is, most of the time mis-used or over-used. Many a times we can reduce it or completely avoid it but we dont do it just because we don’t find it necessary. So first and foremost thing to do is to make people aware of the consequences but no one gives a damn unless it effects them personally. If you say use of Plastic is bad for environment, people give a deaf ear but if you say use of plastic will effect your “pocket” there will be a significant response.
    IF we were successful in reducing the usage, next is to prevent the plastic bags from clogging the pipelines, disposing them properly (major task) … and to achieve it, we need to collect the used plastic bags. The best way to achieve this is if people voluntarily store the used plastic and give to collection agencies for proper disposal of it. “People – voluntarily – doing something” got be kidding, how does it benefit “people” ? So even for returning the plastic bag, it should affect the “pocket” and hence the idea of giving money back for used plastic bag is definitely a good idea. And government taxing more plastic usage and giving little less for disposing them, can pay some of the expenses.

    This is not something un-achievable. Have you ever heard of selling old-newspapers … well I did it when I was young and that was part of my pocket money … All it needs is its awareness and strict implementation (and some benefit). People blame everything possible when problem arises, but doesn’t pay much attention to prevent them. May be thats the reason we have 10 fingers to point (at others) but only 2 hands to do something.

    -Vijay

  • Rahul

    Atanu,
    I agree with you in most of the article.By the government logic they should ban sanitary napkins and disposable diapers too which actually cause more blockage and our people with ‘high’ levels of common sense take care that it happens.
    I would not support your suggestion about the .1 Rs stuff its kind of difficult in this country where most of things are manufactured without any taxes or regualtions.
    I think public should be made aware of facts about the disposing of plastics since in the end they are the ones who suffer.
    Anyways maybe something would come across my mind later but i liked your style of writing. its bold and i just visited the site by chance but i would be visiting regularly now.
    carry on the good work.

  • raju

    I also agree with you. But I would not support your suggestion about the .1 Rs stuff its kind of difficult. Instead of that I will suggest that make plastic bag not less then 35 micron & the size should not less then 4”x6” so it will be easy to recollect.

  • Rajesh Singh

    “Plastic is an econo-friendly material. The real problem is littering”.

    Because of throw away culture and no objection from passer by, the advise on sensible disposal of plastic bags are not heeded by general public forcing the government to consider banning of plastic bags all together.

    If no plastic in the city then….how will your daily Bread, Milk, Grocery, Bakery, Medicines, Food Parcels, Fabric Packaging, Roof Waterproofing sheets and endless items which each of us use in our day to day life, will be delivered to you?

    1. Required Measure is not the BAN on plastic bags but an effective waste management and disposal of plastic bags.
    2. 3. Educate users to the right disposal methods.
    4. Reduce the no of users by reducing the population in the long run.
    5. Encourage reusable bags from traditional materials by suitable advertisements to make it fashionable. ( this may be the overwhelming factor in favour of traditional material). ( Ladies use bags made of snake skin/ rabbit skin/lion skin etc only for fashion and looks )
    6. Cost of mfg bags with traditional material can be subsidized by printing advertisement on the bags.

  • http://www.badlani.com Rajiv Badlani

    First time I’ve been to your blog, Atanu. You write well. The subject of plastic bags is one I feel strongly on and I completely agree that a tax on the foul things is the best way to deal with them. What amazes me is that governing cretins usually love taxing things and they haven’t though of this simple idea? As it happens, taxing plastic bags works as Ireland has amply proved. I write a blog on this at http://www.badlani.com/blog where you’ll find many stories on how better governed communities have rid themselves of the plastic bag menace.

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  • Suneel Durve

    22/08/2007

    It is almost 2 years since the above exchanges took place;while the matter was hot.

    I have practiced to handle the plastic scrap properly in my own household for the bygone 2 years. And I am happy on myself being pretty susccessful.

    For the last two years i have not thrown a single plastic item in the garbage- household dustbin and my office dustbin. I have found that keeping a big plastic bag in a corner in the house/office to dump all plastic wastages is very simple and does not require any special effort/expenditure/energy/time. Also, for the plastic bags/containes used to pack wet/sticky/smelly substances, it is very very simple to give a quick water wash from a running tap and then to throw this washed bag in your big bag in the corner. It takes nearly the same time you take to throw the bag into your regular distbin. This way you reduce at least 90% degrading type of matter going into open garbage dumps on the street corners, if not 100%. I do not think that running water has still remained a problem at least in Mumbai.

    This big plastic bag in the corner, once it is full, I hand it over to our janiter. He is happy for two reasons to accept it. From somewhere he gets a few rupees for that, I am told. And secondly, he is happy to handle my daily dustbin. Because it contains only dry scrap, vegetable peels,dry bones and the like. No waste food or wet garbage. In the last year I have prevented about 5-6 kg plastic going into my dustbin and from there to finally street corner dump. I will estimate that, I might have reduced the volume of garbage thrown by me alone by 90%.

    Why it should work for every body else?

    I invite all the readers of this article to practise like this on personal level first, and then spread the practice around.

    Implanting good habits into the “people” is the only, and the only solution for eradication of the plastic menace. And moreover, this is not easy. It takes time for people to change, and patience and complete faith in what you are doing. Change yourself and the world will change too. (But not immediately). Curtailing or punitive type of measures work only at individual levels, not on mass scale.

    So, once again I appeal to all, to be practicle and believe in gradual change which starts from you alone.

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