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Could a Plastic Ban Revivify India's Urban Marine Environments?
Image Credit: CC0 image via Pixnio

Could a Plastic Ban Revivify India's Urban Marine Environments?

 
 

On March 22, Mumbai woke up to the wonderful news of about 80 olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings waddling along on Versova beach, one of the many beaches on the city’s 140 km-long coastline. The sight of the turtles got Mumbai residents to rush to the beach with their cameras. The reptile is listed as Vulnerable — a grade just a notch safer than Endangered — on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

For a while, the revelry at the sight of the marine life on the city’s infamously polluted beach was interrupted when environment experts wondered aloud that no egg shells were seen. However, some egg shells were soon found in a pit a day later, and the joy was back. Some of the turtles had died in those pits, but a majority of them were shown the way to the sea.

Forest officials have said there was a possibility that adult female tortoises had returned to nest at the place they were born. The females lay their eggs above the high tide line, in a sandy shore, and the hatchlings use the moonlight bouncing off the sea to guide themselves to the water. However, none of the beaches in the city have a sandy shore because of encroachment by hawking stalls and the garbage. In July of last year, an adult turtle was rescued from Juhu beach, also in Mumbai.

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That this phenomenon took place nearly 20 years after these turtles were first noticed on Mumbai’s coastline tells a larger story of the health of India’s beaches. As a space-starved and polluted city, Mumbai’s beaches are visited by thousands over the weekends. The sun and the sand and the waves entice people to take a dip in the brown waters off the beach. Plastic detritus and dried flowers from Hindu ceremonies often tangle with the feet. For days and weeks after the Ganesh festival, close to 200,000 massive idols, some as big as 40 feet high, and made of plaster of Paris, are immersed into the sea across the city’s beaches, gravely polluting the sea.

It is in this context that the hatching of the turtles excited the city. And much of this has been possible due to vast stretches of Versova beach being cleaned, under the leadership of one man who has been tirelessly cleaning the beach nearly every weekend since 2015. Bombay High Court lawyer Afroz Shah had just moved to his new apartment by Versova beach in Mumbai and was appalled to notice the garbage on the beach. There are various sources of this trash, but for Shah, what mattered was the health of the beach. And that’s how he got together with his 84-year-old neighbor (who has since died) to clean the beach every weekend. Their efforts began to get noticed by residents of Versova, and it spurred dedicated action toward cleaning up the beach every weekend.

Shah’s efforts have been noticed by the local authorities, who have had to save face by acknowledging their own inefficiency in dealing with the garbage. He and his dedicated group of volunteers have cleared the beach of 13 million kilos of waste in 124 consecutive weekends. His efforts gained a boost when the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) called it the “world’s largest beach clean-up in history” and Shah was awarded the UN’s Champions of the Earth award.

But the garbage keeps coming back. Singularly blaming the plastic menace would condone the behavior of littering without any care. And hence no matter the amount of waste collected and the hours put in under the hot sun, the impact of Shah’s effort could not be fathomed.

That changed with the sighting of the newly hatched olive ridley sea turtles.

But what happens next? Could this push Mumbai to realize the folly of its heightened consumption patterns, best evident with the amount of trash generated, a majority of which is plastic and styrofoam?

After the 2006 deluge in Mumbai, which claimed 1,094 lives, the government banned plastic bags below 50 microns, but this wasn’t preventing the clogging of drains. So the government of Maharashtra – of which Mumbai is the capital – passed a ban last week on the use of all plastic items. It has laid down a strict system of penalties, but has detailed what items are exempt: milk pouches, PET bottles, garbage bags, wrappers for processed food, packs for medicines. This would make Maharashtra the 18th state in India to enforce such a ban.

Hawkers selling vegetables have already put up a small board suggesting customers to bring their own bags. While this decision has been largely hailed, even as there seems to be some confusion on the fate of packaged goods that are already in the market, there is also no directive on the alternatives to plastic.

There is also no clarity on how one is supposed to discard the large chunks of plastic that they might be living with. So while the chief minister has already suggested that penalties wouldn’t be imposed immediately, the alternative solutions are not quite visible yet. At the same time, the plastic industry stands to lose more than $700 million and 400,000 jobs; the industry has been rightly questioning whether a ban is effective when littering is so prevalent.

One could say that the olive ridley sea turtles hatching on Versova beach is a sign of the possibilities toward a cleaner life, and one that would not clog drains during he city’s monsoon months. And while there is a political will toward this outcome, it is essential that all stakeholders align around a similar vision, pursuing just and sustainable solutions for the environment.

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