I was at the warehouse this morning when led by the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, police raided the market! They were confiscating polythene bags (below 20-micron), which is an ecological hazard and has been banned.

The main market here has a 2km stretch of Grand Trunk Road running through the center, with shops dotting both sides of the road. Most shops have small frontage (avg. 10ft) and are built touching side by side with no space in between. I estimate there would be around 800 shops in this 2km stretch! Now, with so many shops and almost every shop carrying polythene, how much polythene did the police uncover today? Truth is – hardly any, if at all!

It was the third raid in recent times. Unlike the previous two, this one was a surprise. They were secretive this time; there were no whispers, no strange activities, and no articles in the newspapers that could have suggested it. But like the previous two, this one also failed. What was wrong? The ‘mechanism’ of the raid – it’s flawed.

This place is small, people know each other by name, and communication networks are huge. The moment they raid the first shop, the whole place knows about it and polythene bags are hidden away. Normally they don’t, but this time the SDM ordered the police to search inside the shops – drawers, counters, shelves, and containers, everywhere where you were likely to hide them. But that “they are searching inside” also became public knowledge, so the shopkeepers took it out of the hiding and sent it to their homes! Hardly surprising, the police did not find any polythene in subsequent shops they went to.

Despite the sudden-surprise factor, it failed due to simple fact that by the time you raid the first shop there won’t be any polythene left in the market! Don’t they understand that? They do. Hardly six months back they had confiscated huge amounts of polythene and burnt it publicly at the center of the market. So whats wrong with the recent raids?

I think there can be three possible cases –
1. You want the raid to be successful but follow a flawed mechanism.
If I were the SDM, I would have not done it this way. I would have not touched the retailers at all. There are too many retailers, too many shops, and a raid will never work. But there are only a couple of wholesaler (of polythene bags) here. I would have raided them. If I had stronger powers, I would have spared the wholesalers also, and raided the manufacturers instead. I wonder why they don’t do it. Or is it just dirty politics behind this obviously flawed mechanism of raiding shops one at a time?
2. That brings me to the second point – you want the raid to be successful but your hands are tied by dirty politics – trade unions and the way opposition politics works at micro levels.
3. The raid has been forced by the administration, and deep down you don’t really want to conduct the raid. Maybe you understand the real problem, that there is no substitute for polythene yet, so you consciously choose this flawed mechanism of raiding shops one by one, and just do it enough to keep the administration happy.

Which of the above factor has been playing in recent times, I don’t know. I discard the first one because I find it hard to believe that an officer of SDM level would not know that the strategy is flawed. I am sure he knows it. I discard the third factor, because if the raid was forced by administration and if personally you didn’t really want to conduct it, then this surprise element would have been missing in today’s raid – there would have been some signals given before. I have a feeling that it was really dirty politics behind it.

Apart from raids, strategy and motives, I also have a few points about polythene itself –
1. There has been a lot of concern about the environmental hazards of polythene. Despite being banned, the illegal 20-micron polythene is available throughout the country. Personally I find people in CBR (and other rural towns around) more concerned about it than people in bigger cities like Lucknow or Kanpur. No, folks here have never heard scientific terms like “biodegradable” but they know a few things about polythene – it chokes the open drainage system in use here (causing sewage water to overflow on the roads and into their low built houses) and it kills their cows, goats and buffaloes (if they swallow it). So many people here want it to go.

2. There is this huge problem of substitute. I am a retailer, believe me, retailers don’t love polythene either. For purely business reasons – it eats well into our profits. But what’s the substitute? Homemade paper bags are great – they are cheap, they generate employment for unskilled, and they are environmental friendly. Many retailers use these small paper bags for small quantities of goods, say 250gms of sugar. But what if one were to buy 3kg of sugar and 5kg of flour?

Its strange – the Govt. doesn’t want it, retailers don’t want it either, and consumer’s opinion is divided. But like a necessary evil, it is here to stay. That said, I would more than love to see the polythene go. My takes for the substitute – handmade paper bags (for small quantities) and biodegradable polythene bags for larger quantities.

As I write this post, I cannot help but think about our own policy here. We were the first retailer (and still the only one) in CBR to say ‘no’ to polythene. Our ads always say, “Help us reduce polythene, Please bring your own bags.” When we inaugurated the first shop with that statement in the ads, everyone thought we were crazy. Competitors were happy because “without polythene no one will buy from them”. They were right; habits don’t change overnight. For decades, people have been carrying away their purchases in polythene. How could a new entrant change that in a day? It affected our sales in a big way and still continues to do so. We receive repeated requests from our customers for polythene bags, but we have resisted the temptation, educated them and finally learned to survive and sell without it. Today most of our customers bring their own bags. But it’s an ongoing issue. Howsoever tough it has been till now, with customer base increasing by the day, it is becoming tougher to handle their requests and sometimes very legitimate demand for polythene. We know one thing – it may be very difficult to continue without polythene bags, but we also know that once started, it will be even more difficult to discontinue it.

So till the issue is resolved, it’s business as usual – sales, raids and public burning of confiscated polythene at times, ever-increasing customer pressure on us for polythene carry-bags, and our ongoing education and requests to customers for ‘no-polythene-use’ and bringing their own bags.

(When I started writing this post, I thought it would be just about an event. Then it developed into my analysis of its failure, the motives behind it, people’s treatment of the issue, and ultimately about our own policies. Hardly surprising that an issue of national debate occupied more space than what I limit my posts to.)