I read a story of an interesting legal case in the US press. A few years ago, three young businessmen in California who were importing tiger tails- a marine life product from Honduras to USA, were awarded a jail sentence of 8 years each for use of plastic packaging material by their suppliers. They were charged under what is called ‘Lacey Act’- an US act for wild life protection that sought to penalise American citizens for violating wild life protection laws of foreign countries.
The businessmen were held guilty of collaborating with their Honduran partners of illegally packing tiger tails in plastic wraps while Honduran Wild Life laws mandated paper wraps for Tiger Tails.
The three businessmen were most shocked when they were arrested and charged. All along they never felt they had broken any law in running their business or otherwise. Equally shocked were the Honduran suppliers who did not even know that such a law existed and it was not only them but all their competitors were using plastic bags without any exception.
The judge however, had all the facts that he needed with him and no one contested the fact that packaging material used was plastic. He had to only make sure that the Honduran law existed in the statute and he found it did. He had no choice but to send the accused businessmen to prison with minimum mandated sentence of 8 years (California law mandated minimum tenure of sentence). Many Honduran citizens themselves came to know of the law only when they read of the case in press. The most likely scenario might have been- initially when the law was notified, people tried to cope and used paper but paper used for a product coming from sea waters may have become wet and messy and so they decided to ignore the law and continue with plastic and eventually forgot the law.
Drawing on the story of Honduran businessmen’s loss of memory of their wildlife law- would you therefore be surprised if five years later Delhiites forget about the ban on plastic in their very own city, where already a ban on plastic bags exists. Taking a cue from ban enforced in many developed countries- many Indian cities have already imposed a ban on plastic bags – foremost being Delhi. It is a highly laudable act. Nobody needs to remind us how plastic bags cause havoc to environment. But has the ban been enforced successfully? I can tell you only about Delhi and being India’s first city- I presume it would be the story of all cities in the country. If you visit kirana stores or vegetable vendors in any part of Delhi you won’t believe there is a ban on plastic bags in force because everybody – all sellers and buyers are routinely using them.
Why and when do people in a very large number break a law with such impunity? Well, they seem to do so when law adversely affect all or most of the people unlike in case of a law against stealing which is inconvenient only to thieves. In developed countries plastic banning cities have brought in again brown paper bags paid for by the seller or cloth bags paid by the customer which are not a very expensive substitute for them, considering that average incomes in rich countries are much higher than in developed country. For tiny kirana stores, wayside vegetable vendors in India and their customers however- these are not very attractive substitute not only because of the cost but also from the point of convenience.
Shoppers in developed countries usually buy pre packed groceries and vegetables placed by retailers in brown paper bags in a super market and carry the shopping cart right up to the car in the parking lot. They do not miss the plastic bag so much. Not so for developing countries like India. Plastic bags are a huge convenience to carry groceries and vegetables while walking home or taking a bus from the bazaar compared to old days when raddi news paper bags were used. Newspaper bags become soggy when meat, fish or wet vegetables are placed in them. No wonder – plastic bags are hugely popular.
Besides the question of convenience as in the case of plastic ban, perhaps there is also a gap between the perceptions of law makers and those of people as to what is good for people.
The story of the three men I am sure would be summed up by many in the words of Charles Dickens as “Law is an ass”. Most people‘s reaction would be- the three poor guys were just not lucky. So many people routinely and mindlessly break laws everyday and get away. Plastic ban apart- think of other laws which are routinely violated everywhere in the world. Prohibition whenever or wherever was imposed, invariably led to smuggling and bootlegging.
Likewise, no country in the world has been able to eliminate prostitution completely even after heavily criminalising such activities. Despite best efforts to protect people from temptations of gambling by most countries, some form of gambling- official or otherwise always exists in a country, be it on horse race, dog race, cricket, football, elections or whatever.
The hopeful development is that more and more countries are now, becoming less conservative and more open to revisiting such laws. Slowly there appears to be a growing realisation that making laws exclusively and purely on moral, health or religious grounds may be counterproductive.
Drugs in small quantity are permitted to be sold in some European countries. Marijuana is slowing getting legalised at least for medical use in some American states. In most developed countries – alcohol is freely available except with a ban for those below a certain age. Most of Europe is relaxed about prostitution but has in place protective laws on advertising and against trafficking and exploitation of women.
The essential point in making a law should therefore be to ask- would this law be respected by most citizens in a country. So, it should also be for legislations on environmental issues like plastic ban even if it may not meet the prevailing standards of correctness imposed by some other countries.
Isn’t there is a case for tweaking such laws in a way that people respect them and they become easily enforceable. Shouldn’t the powers that be considered removing the plastic ban because it just cannot be enforced and seriously look for commercial use of plastic waste?
I am told there are many possibilities with technologies already developed or being developed. Some that I came across in internet, talk about using it to make hydro carbon fuel or materials for road and building construction. If that happens, everybody would get busy trading waste plastics and not littering. We can go on using plastic bags without any qualms.
How about a thought on that?
By: Prabhat Sharma