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On patrol with India's anti-plastic 'blue squad'

Authorities in Maharashtra state have banned the use of disposable bags, cutlery, cups, bottles

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Inspectors scouring Crawford Market in Mumbai, on the lookout for violators of a recent ban on single-use plastics.

Mumbai

WEARING matching blue Nehru jackets, the dozen inspectors fan out across Mumbai's hectic Crawford Market, each scouring for violators of an ambitious plastic ban.

It does not take Mahindra Wayangankar long to find one: a fruit seller, wrapping his wares in plastic, is hit with a hefty 5,000 rupee (S$94) fine.

Mr Wayangankar, 50, is one of 311 officials dubbed the "blue squad" and tasked with enforcing a recent ban on single-use plastics in India's commercial capital.

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"The job is very stressful. When we fine traders and shopkeepers, there is some form of resistance or violence in 99 per cent of cases," he said. "It is difficult to work in such situations. Since the amount is huge, people don't pay up easily."

"(But) we are happy doing this job because it helps society and protects the environment. Our goal is not just to raise revenue but create awareness too," he added.

Mumbai, a bustling coastal city of 20 million people, has long been awash with vast mountains of plastic rubbish, like many urban centres in India. Plastic is regularly blamed for blocking drains and contributing to flooding during the city's four-month-long summer monsoon.

Earlier this year, the authorities decided that something had to be done and introduced a ban across Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital. The rules, which came into force at the end of June, prohibit the use of disposable plastic items such as bags, cutlery, cups and bottles under a certain size.

Businesses and residents face fines of 5,000 rupees for a first-time offence to 25,000 rupees or even three months in jail for repeat offending.

Officials said that citizens are already seeing the benefits of the ban. Nidhi Choudhari, a deputy municipal commissioner in charge of enforcing it, said that 11.6 million rupees in fines had been collected and over 21 tonnes of plastic seized.

A walk through Crawford Market and visits to grocery stores and food stalls suggest that many traders have switched to cloth bags and paper straws. But others continue to violate the ban and large piles of plastic items can still be seen on the city's beaches and streets.

Retailers associations complained that confusion over what is and is not permitted has led some shopkeepers to be unfairly fined. Traders also said that a lack of cheap alternatives has hurt their businesses, threatening livelihoods.

Kombaiyya S, a street vendor, used to package takeaway orders of his Indian rice cakes and stew for office workers in small plastic bags. "I've lost most of my client base," he said.

The United Nations has warned that the world could have 12 billion tonnes of plastic trash by the middle of the century if use is maintained at current levels.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to make India free of single-use plastic by 2022. But while the majority of India's 29 states have a full or partial ban on single-use plastics, the law is rarely enforced.

Members of the blue squad said that they are too small in number to rid Mumbai of all its plastic, but are determined to do what they can. A surprise inspection of a popular Hindu temple last week, which resulted in several fines, highlighted that nowhere is off limits.

"We will up the secret raids," said Sangita Hasnale, an assistant commissioner at the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. "Within one year, I think you will be able to give us a 90 per cent pass rate." AFP