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Big Change Can Start Small

Madavi Nathan Oliver

It is more than a year since I came from US for my sabbatical in India.  It is mango season now  and I stop at the fruit vendor on KP road. I buy a kilo of mangoes, a dozen oranges and half a kilo of green grapes.  The vendor weighs the fruits, packs it and hands it to me.  I am pleasantly surprised.  It is nicely packed as usual, but the surprise is that it’s packed the “green way” – in used newspaper with a channall (thin coir thread) holding it together.  Last year this time when I bought fruits from the same vendor he packed each fruit type in a plastic bag and then put all 3 plastic bags in another big plastic bag.  What a difference - and no inconvenience at all.  It occurred to me that this is even better than the, “Would you like to pack it in plastic or paper, mam” option they give at grocery stores in USA.  I became very curious and came to know that the change is all courtesy of the “Quit Plastics - Save the Earth” campaign led by the District Collector, with support from local elected leaders and the administration in Kanyakumari District.  The background of this successful program is an inspiring story and a case study on how to effect change.

First, a bit about the place - Kanyakumari District is the smallest district in Tamil Nadu, India and Nagercoil where I have been living for the past year, is the district headquarters.  Located at the southernmost tip of peninsular India, it is a beautiful beach destination and lies at the confluence of three water bodies – Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.  Referred to by the British as Cape Comorin, Kanyakumari has been named after the Goddess Kanyakumari Amman.  It was part of Travancore for a long time before it merged with Tami Nadu.  A visitor to Kanyakumari has many interesting places to choose from – temples, beaches and historic sites.  Well, this beautiful location is also victim to plastic and other pollutants.

Eager to find out more about how they succeeded in stopping the use of plastic bags, I met with the man behind the movement, Shri. Rajendra Ratnoo, IAS –  District Collector Kanyakumari district, to learn about all the efforts which went behind the scenes .  Let me tell you it’s no easy task to change this practice of using plastic bags we have carelessly gotten ourselves into.  I also interviewed multiple shop owners and ordinary citizens.  The ban and enforcement went into effect on April 1st 2010 after several months of the popular “quit plastics” campaign planning. It was an official ban on using plastic bags and cups. However, in my opinion, the key words for success here are:  Educate, Empower, Energize and Enforce.

Educate: They didn’t just say, “Quit Plastics.” Think about it.  If you are unaware that there is a problem then you wouldn’t think of fixing it.  The campaign first aimed at making the public conscious of the ill effects of using non degradable plastic products.  They focused on plastic bags and cups.  They trained people on how to quit the habit.  They held numerous public seminars, provided tips (for example, always keep a carry bag in the vehicle) and exhibitions of alternatives.  For both the awareness and training part of the campaign they involved people at the grass roots level - traders associations – of kaikari vyabarikal (vegetable vendors), erachi kadais (butchers), kalyanan mandaabams (wedding halls), grocery stores and even sanitary workers.  They got the buy in of electorate reps, ward members, panchayat leaders, schools and college principals, religious leaders, collectorate and district level officers. The process used multiple channels of communications – FM radio, print, TV, interpersonal communication, text messages, communications through schools, colleges and religious media. Within a week people got into the mode of “BYOB”!!! (Bring Your Own Bag). Cloth bags, net bags, canvas bags, baskets- and hurrah! No plastic bags in sight!   Vendors figured out innovative ways of packaging their goods in easy to carry, neat looking newspaper parcels. Takeaways in hotels used banana leaves for dosais and tin foil bags for liquid gravies.  Butchers used lotus leaves to pack meat.

The positive message about the campaign has very successfully reached the commoners.   It was heartening to hear many of them say, “Bhoomikku romba nallathu amma” (Good for the earth mam).  For example, our newspaper delivery man knew about it and he felt that the roads are much cleaner. He also commented that it is actually a profitable scheme for shopkeepers, elaborating that previously people used to take plastic bags even if they just purchased one or two small items, which they now carry without a plastic bag.   Interested parties have even setup an effective facebook page to share and discuss.  Join as a fan at “Plastics free Kanyakumari”

Empower:  A resolution was passed in local bodies (consisting of 1,057 rural habitations, 56 Town Panchayats and 4 Municipalities) throughout the district not to use throw away plastic items.  Authorities were empowered to impose a fine of 100 rupees to anyone found carrying a plastic bag.  Shops that provide or sell plastic bags are subject to higher fines, seizure of materials and even shut down for non-compliance.  The administration also empowered a few local entrepreneurs to provide alternative solutions to plastic bags and cups.  Local companies started producing fiber bags and paper cups to supply to the shops.

I recall a situation when I went to the local super market and “oops I didn’t bring my own bag..”  But the store was better prepared.  They sold cloth bags which look like fancy versions of the manjal thambula pais  (the yellow bags they give out as favors in Indian weddings).   They come in different sizes, starting at 3 rupees per bag.  I bought 2 bags - nice orange and green ones.  I still use them, and hope to proudly take them to shops in the USA as well!!

Energize:  A unique feature of this campaign is the “practice before you  preach” methodology.  The collector himself led the effort.  He and his family first stopped using plastics, followed by the entire staff at the Collector office and other district level officers.  Then it trickled down to leaders, opinion makers, electorate reps, ward members, panchayat officers, and sanitary workers. The collector was visibly present, often sporting a green shirt, at numerous meetings and training sessions. He secured the firm support of the Minister, Member of Parliament and other elected officials from Kanyakumari district.  His enthusiasm was present online as well. He was quick to respond to blogs and other online chatter on the matter. These are all a refreshing experience for the public and unusual in India. This infectious energy from the top down made the public and the vendors  extend their cooperation.

There are many examples that demonstrate the energy and enthusiasm about the program. Employees of a local company RedEgg InfoExpert, used the ban plastics theme in their fashion parade competition to promote the idea. A local bakery, Cake World, displays a prominent sign advocating the benefits of not using plastics.  Vegetable vendor Vincent proudly sells a cloth bag with his own branding.  The owner of Eden Pharmacy says that most tablets and small medicine bottles have always been packed in a brown covers.  Before they used to put this brown cover in a plastic bag, and now they don’t.  Since the ban went into effect, they bought 50 cloth bags to keep as a backup. But, they have had to only give out 5-6 in the past 2 months.  Most people bring their own bags nowadays.  He also cautioned that the most important thing is to keep checking, since people slowly slack off and sneak these bags back into use.  

Enforce:  The enforcement started on the pre-announced day of  April 1st, 2010.  Even the enforcement approach is unique.  While the threat of a 100 rupee fine keeps the commoner from using a plastic bag, the Collector’s philosophy again is thoughtful.  He tells his squad, “It’s not about how many miscreants you find, but how many you check for”.  He encourages with a pat on the back for the good, seizure and closure of the non conformers.  I learned that he himself was present in person at businesses and convinced them on the merits of the program. They used short messages on mobile phones to quickly communicate about the ban. They formed 94 flying squads and inspected shops, hotels and other commercial establishments to check on the use of plastics.  These surprise inspections go on even now.

The administration is also very swift to act. A few days ago a local branch of a major retailer chain was still packing groceries in plastic bags. Within hours of this incident being reported via facebook, the district officials including the SDM & RDO Nagercoil, along with Commissioner, Municipal Administration, and Pollution Control Board Officials inspected the premises. They seized 82.59 kg of plastic carry bags and cups. The department store was also locked down until they complied with the regulations.  Again, something you don’t see your typical administration execute so well in India. Many kudos to Kanyakumari!!

In some ways, it is a déjà vu of my childhood days.  If you rewind history, not using plastics is not new to India.  During my childhood in the 60s, Mom used to (always) take a basket to market, a tiffin box to buy mutton, “thuni pai (cloth bag)” for groceries.  There has always been a green movement in India.  It is weaved into the culture of saving, reusing and saving more.   Do you remember the paper guy calling out “palzhaya paperu!!”  (old papers) and how we sold our end of year school notebooks, old text books, magazines and newspapers  to him?  And the person who buys glass bottles and even people who buy old clothes you wish to dispose and give you some “ever silver” (stainless steel) vessels in return.  Recall us using every part of a coconut or banana tree and burning off dry leaf waste.  People used to put eggshells as manure for their rose plants.  I would be wrong if I said no one does these things any more.  It’s just that less people do it in these modern times.  Unknowingly we have shifted towards consumerism and waste production. As our lifestyles have changed we have also changed.  We just need to go back to our roots.

I had to make changes in my own home.  No plastic bags to line the waste bucket – what to do?  Solution - compost the green matter, save the paper, bottles and other recyclable goods to resell, dispose and wash the bin everyday - there is less trash anyway.   And just for fun, we decided to wash and save the eggs shells to make a mosaic .  Set your own date to quit using plastic bags.  But do it before it’s too late to turn back.  You don’t have to live in the Kanyakumari district to do it.  Do it anywhere in the world.  All you have to do is carry a bag or two in your vehicle.  And when you visit from the USA buy a few reusable bags and give them as gifts to the folks you visit in India.  And make sure you make a stand.  You can do your part by saying no to - one plastic bag at a time.  

To find some pictures of everyday people “saying no to plastics” visit   http://picasaweb.google.co.in/madavioliver/QuitPlasticsLikeThem#

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