A warm January afternoon becomes slightly cooler the second you walk into Anderson Street located in Chennai’s George Town. The buildings, packed close to each other with just a needle’s gap between them, insulate the street from the outside world. Anderson Street is famed for its wholesale paper and plastics shops. On an ordinary day, one can barely walk five paces without bumping into another or swerving wildly to one side to make way for the fiercely fast hand-drawn trolleys.
But a few days since Tamil Nadu Government’s plastic ban, it is evident that business is not as usual. One out of every three shops have downed their shutters with a white notice plastered on them: “TN Government has announced a ban on plastics beginning January 1, 2019. The Government has not heeded to our requests until today and so all plastic manufacturers and sellers will go on an indefinite strike until the ban exists - George Town Plastic Sellers Association.”
This association is made up of close to 600 shop owners and over 50,000 workers. On day three of this ban, all plastic shops on Anderson Street have downed their shutters.
Walking ahead, the crowd thins as the number of plastic shops increase from here on. And towards the end of Anderson Street, is a small gathering of bored adults, seated under a pandal. Behind them are wall paintings of Bagath Singh, Ambedkar and Dr Abdul Kalam and once again, the white paper bill announcing the indefinite strike makes an appearance.
However, it was refreshing to find many shopowners plying their trade despite the challenges the ban poses.
Making small steps to change
While there are a few protesting against it, many others are looking at alternatives to overcome the crisis. Some are starting a new business while others are switching to alternative methods to ply their trade and daily chores.
K Abbas Mandri, who has been running KAS Plastics for close to five years on Anna Pillai Street, is doing whatever he can to sustain his livelihood, even though he feels the ban is wrong. Outside his semi-shuttered shop, he is unwrapping a sack of red onions and stacking them on bamboo baskets. A pile of dark green leaves lie next to the onions.
“The ban might be here to stay. One should whatever he can to keep his head above the water,” he says while sorting through the onion sacks. “I heard there’s a requirement for onions and I bought a few sacks today. Since the ban, some ask for mandarai leaves (from Mandarai tree or Bauhinia racemosa or Bidi leaf tree),” he adds.
Mohamad Basith emptied the plastics at his wholesale plastic shop on Malayaperumal Street and has replaced them with multi-coloured daily sheet calendar boards adorned with gods from different faiths.
With his legs swinging down from the raised platform he’s seated on, Mohamed says, “It’s a new year, people will need calendars. In fact, there is a huge demand for them now.”
But even for those who sell alternatives - plantain leaves, for instance - cannot deny the practicality of plastic covers when it comes to daily chores. A jolly-looking Kumar, who has been cutting the green banana leaves into different sizes outside his shop, says that he and his boys were not been able to get lunch because the hotel, from where they usually buy food, had no covers to pack sambar.
“The rice and curry they can pack with papers and banana leaves. What about sambar and curd?” he laughs adding, “I have 10 boys working for me here. All of them are not from the city and for them, food always comes from such hotels. This surely is a challenge. So, I am going to buy stainless steel vessels to help with packing food for my employees.”
‘We need more time’: Plastic traders
In 2013, the Jayalalithaa government had announced the same ban, but soon after analysing the situation, revoked it. “We hope this Government does it too!” begins Sadik Basha, the owner of Kamaal and sons on Anderson Street.
“We are only asking them to revise their ban. It is true that they gave us six-month advance notice but during this period, why didn’t the government announce or make provisions for alternatives. On Thursday morning, they seized bundles of paper tissues and paper cups from my shop because the wrapper covering them was a banned plastic. Plastic Packing is not banned; yet they seized bundles of plastic packing from our shops,” Sadik says.
Babu, who has been running Euro Plastics for about 15 years on Malayaperumal Street near Anderson Street, adds, “The shops at George Town alone make several crores turnover. Today, no one is working. The Government will soon feel the pinch.”
Reflecting on the hastiness of the ban, Sadik says, “They have extended the time for big corporate brands like Kurkure, Lays and Britannia until 2022. But they have taken away appalam packing covers and Kovilpatti snacks packing covers. The ones affected are always the small and local brands.”
Expressing their concerns with the Government since the ban was first announced, George Town Plastic Sellers Association protested in December. However, the government refused to revoke the ban.
“We cannot make as much profit as we do from selling plastic. We need more time to find and switch to about the alternatives. Currently, the beetle nut plates and plantain leaves do not match up to the plastic industry’s level in terms of quantity and cost,” says Abbas.
Kumar, who sells plantain leaves, explains why it will take time for small hotels to switch to alternatives. “This is my family business and I’ve my usual customers - the big hotels and restaurants - who buy the banana leaves no matter what. But now, I’m unable to provide these leaves to small hotels due to lack of stock. Unlike plastics, these leaves cannot be mass produced and cannot be stored either. Usually, the banana leaves come from Madurai, Theni and Kambam region. Every day, Chennai consumes 40 to 50 truck-loads. And all of this stock has a regular market.”