Geopolitics

Battle Over Radical Elimination Of Plastic Bags In Mumbai

Since June 23, the Indian state of Maharashtra has been verbalizing distributors and users of non-reusable plastic. In Mumbai, more than two hundred inspectors are on the hunt.

Woman and child on Juhu Beach, Mumbai, India
Woman and child on Juhu Beach, Mumbai, India
Guillaume Delacroix

MUMBAI — Santosh is still shaken by what happened. It was June 29, a Friday, when the officers from the Mumbai Municipality walked right up in front of his tiny jewelry stall to check that he was no longer using plastic bags to hold the merchandise he sells to customers. This street vendor, who lives with his family in this Indian city's historic district of Colaba, had already changed the bags he uses after authorities announced the ban on non-recyclable plastic bags. But to his surprise, the inspectors said his new cloth bags do not comply.

"They fined me 5,000 rupees ($72.80)," says Santosh. "I spent 300 rupees ($4.37) to get a hundred cloth bags that they wound up seizing. This fine is a huge loss for me, and I am now reduced to wrap my goods in newspapers."

The ban, officially in effect since June 23, is on plastic shopping bags, food wrappers, straws, dishes and small plastic bottles. While 25 of the 29 states of the Indian Union partially or totally ban non-reusable plastic, Maharashtra (with its 115 million inhabitants) and the capital, Mumbai, are the first to apply sanctions — with 225 inspectors tracking down remaining plastic users. Manufacturers, traders and even end-users now risk fines of up to 5,000 rupees ($72,80), up to 25,000 rupees ($364) and three months in jail for repeat offenders. Dozens of major brands, including McDonald's and Starbucks, had to pay fines after recent inspections.

Plastic_India_Recyling_Environment

A worker works in a plastic recycle factory in Agartala, Tripura, India — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called plastic a "threat to humanity" and instructed his government to eradicate the material by 2022.

On the long artery of Colaba, almost all retailers have made switch without resistance. "Since the media has shown how polluted the sea is, we are all happy to be part of the overall effort," says Deepak, a pharmacist who has switched to paper bags over the last year, to wrap his medicines. For Mahmood, who sells his last mangoes in this early monsoon season, the situation is more complicated. "I used to buy 50 plastic bags for 30 rupees (44 cents). Now I have to pay 80 rupees ($1.16) for 35 paper bags," he explains. "But it's all right, it's for the good cause."

A nearby grocer, Vikram, has found a supplier of bagasse-based bags, made from a material that comes from the cellulose of sugar cane. "For now, we can still give customers plastic bags over 50 microns thick that have handles, because they can be reused. Same goes for bottles of water over 500 milliliters. They are still allowed," he says.

It's a good reason to lead by example

Some still continue to resist, arguing that the suddenness with which the ban was applied did not give them enough time to adjust. The association of plastic bag manufacturers estimates that "the sector will lose $2.2 billion" and that "300 000 jobs are threatened." In the span of one week, thousands of shops were inspected, 1.5 million rupees ($21,832) in fines collected and more than one and a half tons of plastic seized.

Raj Purohit, a Colaba member of parliament — who is part of the Indian People's Party (BJP, Hindu nationalist), thinks that everything is going too fast. He calls for a transition period to run until December 2019: that's "the time needed to prepare sustainable alternatives, such as metal, wood and jute, but most importantly the time needed to build a plastic recycling network worthy of the name."

On July 1, the government of Maharashtra sent a message of appeasement, giving a new three-month moratorium to let small retailers use plastic bags that are less than 50 microns thick. One reason behind this decision is because the monsoon season and its torrential rains are here, and it makes the use of paper bags impossible until September. This angers ecologists, who fear that the plastic will end up reappearing sooner or later. Ecological blogger Vandana Vasudevan says that in Maharashtra alone, 8,000 tons of polythene bags are used every year. "It's a good reason to lead by example," he says.

Vasudevan concludes by reminding us of one fact: a simple plastic straw used to drink water from a coconut takes 200 years to break down.

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Society

Chinese Students Now Required To Learn To Think Like Xi Jinping

'Xi Jinping Thought' ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university.

Children from Congtai Elementary School, Handan City, Hebei Province

Maximilian Kalkhof

BEIJING — It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader.


Xi Jinping has been the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for almost 10 years. In 2017, at a party convention, he presented a doctrine in the most riveting of party prose: "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age."

Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself. In other words, to make China great again!

Communist curriculum replaces global subjects

This doctrine has sent shockwaves through China since 2017. It's been echoed in newspapers, on TV, and screamed from posters and banners hung in many cities. But now, the People's Republic is going one step further: It's bringing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the schools.

Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation?

The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

photo of books on a book shelf

Books about Xi-Jinping at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/ZUMA

— Photo:

Targeting pop culture

The regime is also taking massive action against the entertainment industry. Popstar Kris Wu was arrested on charges of rape. Movies and TV series starring actor Zhao Wei have started to disappear from Chinese streaming platforms. The reason is unclear.

What the developments do show is that China is attempting to decouple from the West with increasing insistence. Beijing wants to protect its youth from Western excesses, from celebrity worship, super wealth and moral decline.

A nationalist blogger recently called for a "profound change in the economy, finance, culture and politics," a "revolution" and a "return from the capitalists to the masses." Party media shared the text on their websites. It appears the analysis caused more than a few nods in the party headquarters.

Dictatorships are always afraid of pluralism.

Caspar Welbergen, managing director of the Education Network China, an initiative that aims to intensify school exchanges between Germany and China, says that against this background, the curriculum reform is not surprising.

"The emphasis on 'Xi Jinping Thought' is being used in all areas of society," he says. "It is almost logical that China is now also using it in the education system."

Needless to say, the doctrine doesn't make student exchanges with China any easier.

Dictatorships are always afraid of color, pluralism and independent thinking citizens. And yet, Kristin Kupfer, a Sinology professor at the University of Trier, suggests that ideologically charged school lessons should not be interpreted necessarily as a sign of weakness of the CCP.

From the point of view of a totalitarian regime, she explains, this can also be interpreted as a signal of strength. "It remains to be seen whether the Chinese leadership can implement this so thoroughly," Kupfer adds. "Initial reactions from teachers and parents on social media show that such a widespread attempt to control opinion has raised fears and discontent in the population."

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