Gobar Times
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BANNED, but USED

I despise gutka. At the cost of sounding utterly politically incorrect, even those who chew it incessantly. So I was mighty delighted when the Supreme Court, in December last year, ordered a ban on the sale of tobacco, gutka and pan masala in plastic pouches from March 2011. Expectedly, the manufacturers cried foul and claimed that the entire industry would come to a standstill after the ban. “Let it come,” the bench said. After all, if gutka is not sold in plastic pouches, what could it possibly be sold in? The bench asked gutka manufacturers to shift to non-plastic packaging. “Let it become costlier. The public would benefit,” Justice A. K. Ganguly observed.

Here is the latest: The Supreme Court has refused to lift the ban despite all the hue and cry and is in fact now considering a total ban on gutka and other smokeless tobacco products.

And now, it’s time for Panditji’s satya vachan. Yes, the bitter truth. March has come and gone, but I still see those hazardous gutka pouches hanging on the chaiwala’s stall near my house. So can you? Well, it was this harsh reality about bans and their futility that prompted me to go back in time and make a list of things – products, drugs, pesticides, practices – that have been banned on paper but used in reality.

  CHINESE TOYS  

In 2009, the Commerce ministry announced a ban on the import of toys from China for a period of six months. “The reason for the ban is a concern for public health. Chinese toys are known to have high content of poisonous substances like lead,” the commerce secretary had said. However, according to trade experts, the ban came after cheap supplies from the neighbouring country upset the applecart of the domestic manufacturers.

Beijing questioned India for not implementing safety standard norms on toys being imported from other countries. The Indian Government then banned imports of toys from any country that did not meet international safety standards and norms till January 2010.

The Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) has said that imports of toys accompanied by a certificate from laboratories accredited by the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) would be allowed."A certificate of conformance from the manufacturer that representative sample of the toys being imported have been tested by an independent laboratory (like ILAC)..." it said.

Eventually, the Indian government lifted the ban that stoked trade tensions between the world’s two biggest emerging economies. (Beijing warned that “bilateral trade relations could be seriously impacted.”) But long before the ban was actually lifted, Chinese toys – from teethers to tricycles – were widely available in the market.

  TREADING 'SOFT'LY  

Associated Press
8/11/2006
NEW DELHI — Two more Indian states banned the sale of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo soft drinks in g
overnment-run schools and colleges over allegations that they contain high levels of pesticides.

So far, seven Indian states have banned the sale of Coke, Pepsi, Sprite and other brands from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo at government-run schools, colleges and hospitals after the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research group said last week that the soft drinks have pesticides levels that far exceed national standards.

Does this news extract bring back old memories of the highly controversial dispute, which first flared in 2003 after the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) proved that Pepsi and Coca-Cola, two of the world’s largest multinational companies, use pesticide-laced water?

Seven states including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab had banned the sale of Coke, Pepsi, Sprite and other brands from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo at government-run schools, colleges, hospitals and government offices, after tests on 11 products made by the two companies showed high pesticide levels, up to 24 times the recommended limit. In one bottle of Coca-Cola bought in Calcutta, the level of the carcinogenic pesticide, Lindane, exceeded the bureau’s standards by 140 times.

CSE had conducted its first study on pesticide levels in soft drinks in 2003 and concluded that those levels remained unacceptably high. Though government schools banned colas, the government failed to implement the promised safety standards. However, this time around, the Supreme Court demanded that Coca-Cola should reveal its secret formula for the first time in 120 years. How did the issue get resolved then? 

How did the soft drink giants manage to enter the market again? According to a Financial Times news report, “Coca-Cola and PepsiCo won a significant legal victory when a court in the Indian state of Kerala lifted the Communist government’s ban on the sale and manufacture of the iconic drinks following a revival of a long-running pesticide scare. The court’s judgment will have a far-reaching impact for two companies, as they still face partial bans, notably in schools, hospitals and other government buildings, in six other states.”

The most important and positive development post the ban and its subsequent lift was the fact that the soft drink giants were now liable to reveal and notify their ingredients on their packaging. And needless to say, an unprecedented level of awareness was generated.

  PLASTIC BAGS  

Now this one is like opening up the Pandora’s box. Bags litter the roadside and decorate the city’s trees with a polythene blossom. Cattle ingest them and drains are clogged with them. Thinner bags in particular are a menace, because they are of little value to Delhi’s “rag-pickers”, who sift rubbish for anything they can sell or recycle. Every now and then, there is a new drive to eradicate plastic bags from our lives.

I cannot but highlight the ambiguity and hypocrisy in the regulation regime. The trendy grocery store in your up market mall would give your fancy cheese in designer brown paper bags but the sabji wala (vegetable vendor) would still give potato and onion in low quality plastic bags.

The government has been trying to curb the plastic menace for long. But its regulations were recently found wanting by the Delhi High Court, which then banned bags in markets and shops, as well as hotels, hospitals and malls. It also banned thin bags (less than 0.04 millimetres thick) outright.

After achieving some success in banning plastic bags in malls and big shops, Delhi Government is all set to crack the whip on small shops and weekly vegetable markets to prohibit its usage in the city.

The Delhi Degradable Plastic Bag (Manufacture, Sale and Usage) and Garbage (Control) Act 2000, which was amended in 2005, states that four- and five-star hotels, hospitals with 100 beds or more, restaurants with seating arrangement of 100 and more, Mother Dairy outlets (milk booths), liquor vends and shopping malls will only use degradable plastic bags.

Big bag problem

  • What the world is doing
  • And what India needs to do

China
China imposed a ban in 2008 on free plastic bags, making their sale compulsory. The country pledged to put a stop to its 3bn-a-day habit after the ban and was successful in curbing the demand by two-thirds.

South Africa
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the problem in South Africa (8bn plastic bags a year) was so bad that plastic bags were beginning to be known as the "new national flower", competing with the protea – the real one.

The solution to the problem came in the form of a ban on the manufacturing, trade and commercial distribution of plastic bags with a thickness of less than 30 microns (0.03mm). Anything below 30 microns can blow away in even a light wind, and cannot be easily recycled. Increasing the thickness of plastic bags has been found to have a positive impact on littering.

Ireland
Ireland levied a tax on the use of plastic bags in 2002. This led to an over 90 per cent reduction in the use of plastic shopping bags.

And now, the not so successful cases
Several other countries such as Australia, Bangladesh, South Africa, Thailand and so
me states in the US, have taken similar measures with varying degrees of success.

In Bangladesh, serious and repeated flooding, which resulted in major loss of life, was reportedly linked to drain blockages caused by plastic bags. The floods prompted the government to impose a ban on the sale and use of polythene bags in the capital city, Dhaka, in 2002. But no results are available on its success, suggesting that there has been little evidence of a positive outcome on the streets.

In Kenya, roughly 82 per cent of plastic bags used each year end up on the streets or in the sewage system. No outright ban has been considered, and even levies have been opposed by those who say it will kill an industry that supports thousands of people.

Depending on the thickness, plastic bags take between 20 and 1,000 years to break down in the environment. They release toxic gases when they burn; they create stagnant pools which can become a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes; and they suffocate or disrupt the digestion of animals that accidentally consume them.

Solution for India
Back home, some of the hilly states, notably Himachal Pradesh and more recently Uttarakhand, have shown some success in restricting the use of plastics. "It is impractical to impose a blanket ban on the use of plastic all over the country. The real challenge is to improve municipal solid waste management systems," Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said.

The biggest challenge staring at us today is a viable alternative to plastic. Simply put, a carry bag that is not made of plastic is recyclable, is affordable and not considered an eye sore. That’s the order of the day. Anyone listening?

  DRUGS  
I try and stay clear of overt usage of drugs. Call me old fashioned if you must, but I only pop a pill when there is no way out of the illness. And with all the recent drug banning in India, I am all the more confused about which medicine to take or avoid. Oh, by the way, the first shocker for me came many years ago when brufen, one of the most common medicines found in many households, was banned.

Anyway, the latest is that three controversial drugs – nimesulide, a suspension to treat pain and fever in children, cisapride for stomach acid reflux, and phenylpropanolamine (PPA), a component of popular cold and cough syrups – have been declared unsafe by the Union health ministry's Drugs Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) and have been banned.

Experts, however, say the ban has come too late. It is because most pharmaceutical companies in India have stopped manufacturing these drugs following their ban in many developed countries, including the Britain, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Nimesulide has never been filed for food and drug administration evaluation for sale in the US, where it is not marketed.

Soon after the ban, the Drugs Controller General of India found that several prohibited drugs were found to be on sale when it conducted raids at different places, including hospitals in Delhi and Bhiwadi in Rajasthan. The raid covered 134 drugs sales outletsand banned drugs were detected at 85 premises, an official statement said. Where does that leave us vis-à-vis drug safety?

imageWe live in a “Ban–Happy” nation In our country, where social evils such as child labour are prohibited yet practiced, policy makers across industries and ministries are very efficient in announcing bans.

The real challenge lies in making the bans work. Each product demands a different approach and the process has to involve detailed research to come up with viable, reliable solutions.

And what role do we play? You and I have to use our discerning minds to be informed at all times and take a closer look at what we consume.