Column: Incentivise Swachh Bharat

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Published: July 11, 2015 12:29:00 AM

An open letter to the prime minister on the need to get industry involved in recycle/re-use through CSR

Respected Mr Prime Minister,

Your Swachh Bharat initiative is truly an important one. We keep talking about how great our country is. Your campaign acknowledges that in fact we might be the dirtiest country in the world. But the campaign is not about petty destructive criticism; it is a constructive call to action. How do we clean up India? Your campaign represents a major discontinuity in our collective national thought-process. You are throwing the issue back to citizens as a challenge. Ever since that ill-fated day in the 1950s, when our supremely silly and unnecessary Planning Commission was set up, the Government of India started giving a message to its citizens, both directly and indirectly. The message was that the Government would solve all the problems of Indian citizens. The citizens, themselves need do nothing. In fact they could constantly ask for more and indulge in exaggerated fits of victimhood. You have dramatically altered the paradigm and changed the rules of debate. Your world view visualises citizens as having agency, as being subjects, not objects, and as having a vital role to play in solving the country’s problems; they do not, any more, have the right to sit back and let the distant government fix the country. In fact, you are acutely conscious of the limitations of government. We all collectively want a Swachh Bharat. And in creating a Swachh Bharat, the government is, at best, one agent, and perhaps not even the most important one. Taking your message to heart, I have spent the last few months travelling quite a bit in our country and trying to understand both the challenges and the opportunities that are involved in cleaning up India. This task is one of details. And if we do not grapple with details, we are going to end up with an even dirtier country in a few years time.

During my travels around the country, I have come across two sources of unattended solid waste that need attention on a war footing. Both these sources are ubiquitous in the urban centres as well as in the peripheries of our towns and cities. They are plastic and construction debris.

Plastic is non-biodegradable and is simply littered by our people anywhere and everywhere, rendering our landscape dangerous and ugly. Plastic also ruins water bodies and blocks drains, creating unimaginable filth and aggravating insanitary conditions. If we do not confront the problem of plastic head-on, all our efforts to clean up India will be in vain. In keeping with your vision of citizen involvement, I believe that you should take the opportunity to involve corporate citizens also and throw a challenge to the Indian plastic industry to solve the problem which, in part, they have created. You should require the Indian Plastic Industry Association to sign an agreement with the government that they will collectively use their CSR funds to create a nationwide plastic buyback programme. They should offer to buy used plastic from any seller; they can have differential pricing for plastic used for bottled water, thick plastic, thin plastic, flexi-plastic and so on. They should then take responsibility either for re-use or for disposal. They should actively invest in R&D to create new and unusual ways for re-using the collected plastic. This initiative will simultaneously involve millions of poor citizens who will collect and sell waste plastic to the industry association and corporate India, giving impetus to your position that citizens need to participate as active agents in creating Swachh Bharat. The plastic industry may argue that the responsibility should in fact devolve on the users of plastic packaging. You should politely to this argument stating that it is up to the plastic industry to figure out how to harness the co-operation of the industries and end-users of packaging. If they are unable or unwilling to take up this initiative with their CSR funds, you can always hint that perhaps the finance ministry could consider a modest tax on plastic!

A similar approach can be taken for dealing with construction debris, which not only disfigures our roads, but also frequently blocks our drains and water channels. You can have an agreement with an association like CREDAI, that every single CREDAI member will guarantee that they will not dump construction debris in public spaces. Additionally, CREDAI can set up sites where construction debris can be collected for recycling. Here too, creative R&D spending, in order to expand recycling possibilities, would be required. Of course, this would not prevent those who are not members of CREDAI from continuing to dump construction debris indiscriminately. But we have to make a beginning somewhere. And if CREDAI can prove that construction debris can be recycled with a positive economic gain, the problem may actually progressively diminish.

The major problem with our bureaucracy is that rather than suggesting positive incentive systems to solve problems like plastic or construction debris at a detailed level, they will propose broad draconian legislation that will not be implementable, but which will doubtless increase the discretionary powers of these officials. Kindly beware of the bureaucratic draftsmen of silly laws. We need workable incentive systems in our country. The very opposite of the kinds of laws that your numerous joint secretaries keep suggesting to your ministers.

In your home state of Gujarat, in Vapi, collective action by industry has managed to actually put the genie of pollution back in its bottle. If we want to ensure that industrial waste does not continue to blight the Ganga, these are the kind of actions we need to consider. Building waste treatment plants has never been a problem. The question is who will operate the plants sensibly? Again, throwing the challenge back to the industry collective makes eminent sense as credibility, legitimacy and their permission to do business are all at stake.

Wishing you the best in ensuring the participation of citizens—individual and corporate in the creation of Swachh Bharat.

Sincerely yours,

Jaithirth Rao

The author is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur

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