COVID 19 AND INDIA: THE CHALLENGE OF MARINE DEBRIS
29th May 2020
In India, the topic of waste-management is one that is almost completely ignored. It has never been on any political party’s election agenda or manifesto since India’s independence. An overwhelming percentage of waste that is generated in the normal course of land-based human activities eventually lands up in the oceans and is referred-to be the generic term, ‘marine litter’, also known as ‘marine debris’. The UN defines this as “items that have been made or used by people and deliberately discarded into the sea or rivers or on beaches; brought indirectly to the sea with rivers, sewage, storm water or winds; or accidentally lost, including material lost at sea in bad weather.” Almost 80% of marine debris consists of plastics in one form or another.
As the world struggles to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, COVID-induced behavioural change is greatly exacerbating the problem of pollution of the oceans. For instance, as of today, we can safely surmise that there are at least a billion facemasks in India, most of which are disposable. On a global scale, this number would be exponentially higher as the law in several, if not all, affected countries mandates the compulsory usage of facemasks. While some countries are trying to make reusable masks more widely available, most people continue to depend on medical masks and latex gloves that need to be disposed after a single usage. In a disturbing number of cases, these discarded masks, and gloves, end-up — along with much else that human beings discard — in the ocean. , In fact, there have been several reports from countries worldwide that record a surge in discarded single-use latex gloves and surgical masks that have washed-up ashore, on beaches and coastlines around the world.
Surgical masks are particularly problematic on two counts. One is that they are the cheapest and most easily available kind. The other is that they are made of non-woven material — mostly polypropylene — which is non-biodegradable and tends to break down into micro plastics when subjected, over time, to the normal turbulence of the oceans.
Insofar as India is concerned, in March 2020, the Central Pollution Control Board of India issued guidelines on the disposal of COVID-related waste. These guidelines are required to be read together with the Bio-Medical Waste-Management Rules, 2016. The guidelines are applicable to isolation centres, camps, home-care of COVID-positive and suspected cases, healthcare facilities. etc. The normal treatment of bio-medical waste, which now includes COVID-waste, is that it is collected by designated authorities and then goes to a common bio-medical waste-treatment and disposal facility. The snag is that there is no legal requirement for surgical masks used and discarded by the normal, everyday person who has not been tested for COVID to be treated in any special way. Therefore, normal waste management rules apply to these facemasks. As a result, we will shortly be facing a reality that includes an abnormal number of discarded coronavirus masks in our landfills and eventually our seas, thereby amplifying the long looming problem of marine debris along the Indian coastline.
‘Marine Debris’ Law and Policy in India
Marine pollution, as a distinct subject, has neither been dealt with in policy nor economics in India. In tackling marine litter, Indian policy has been restricted to the banning of single-use plastic — a fact evidenced by an international report of the Marine Litter Legislation by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2016. The report mentions Indian efforts only in the case of a ban on plastic-bags. India’s ban applies only to certain types of plastic — notably plastic bags of a certain thickness. While this move has been welcome, it is certainly not even close to the solution if segregation, and eventual incineration of polypropylene (coming from all sources of plastic), does not happen. For example, the UN report has several sections on developing policy to tackle marine litter. Banning any single-use plastic is under the sub-heading “Prohibiting and Disincentivizing use of Land-based Material Causing Marine Litter at the Retail Level”. There are other sections on managing and restricting waste disposal into the marine environment (from landfills) — and in all these sections, Indian policy is undeveloped. This extends to policy on public and private sector engagement on tackling marine pollution, research programmes, and engagement of universities. Unless all processes — at the central, state, and regional levels — work in tandem with one another, our oceans will face continued threats in the form of plastic.
To add to this, unpacking oceans governance in India as a topic, is daunting in and of itself. One of the reasons is that there is no consolidated national institutional framework dealing with oceans in a holistic manner. The Ministry of Earth Sciences, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, the Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Fisheries), and the Ministry of Defence (the Indian Coast Guard and the Indian Navy) are all stakeholders in ocean governance. These ministries and departments do not necessarily mesh with one another, resulting in a significant amount of dissonance. In an attempt to resolve some of this, there has been a slew of ‘Blue Economy’ programmes in India over the past few years. However, the ‘Blue Economy’ is a large concept, within which marine debris is but a part, and not one heralding the most attention either. Given the need to bolster economic activity in the maritime sectors of fisheries, offshore oil, gas and wind, and even deep-sea mining, specific issues that are required to address marine debris in a pointed manner remain largely ignored or are paid little more than lip service. There was some talk last year of building a National Marine Litter Policy for India, which was to be funded by Norway as part of another ‘Blue Economy’ programme. Information of whether and how that policy developed is currently not in the public domain.
There is another unique angle to how Indian environmental policy works, or rather, doesn’t work. Often, many different stakeholders end-up carving the skeletal policy for a topic — such as the ‘Blue Economy’ and, by extension, marine pollution. To have a meaningful impact, a programme must have four elements — identifying the problem, offering pointed solutions, implementing the ideas through a pilot project, and, reviewing the implementation so that successful pilot-projects can be upscaled, and plans that do not work can be altered. However, insofar as developing a well-sounded plan to address marine litter/pollution in India is concerned, we remain stuck at the “Problem Identification” stage. Several ‘Blue Economy’ reports highlight the need to fix the problem but none go beyond that. The importance of safeguarding our oceans and oceanic resources needs no further emphasis and no additional ‘statements of noble intent’. What is needed, instead, is an end-to-end plan in which the important facets of technology, tech-finance, policy and regulation, tax, as well as revenue-positive economic models, and so forth are made to work together to find a sustainable, long-term solution that will keep our oceans healthy. At the very least, addressing marine pollution and stopping practices that add to it should be high on India’s political and social agendas.
*Ms Ipshita Chaturvedi is a Founding Partner in C&C Advisors, an award-winning Mumbai based Law and Policy Consulting firm. Ipshita has a deep and abiding interest in issues related to ocean governance and is a visiting researcher at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental law, National University of Singapore. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the position of the NMF. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
 UN Environment Programme, “Marine Litter”, UN Environment Programme Website, https://www.unenvironment.org/explore-topics/oceans-seas/what-we-do/working-regional-seas/marine-litter
 Dimitris Mavrokefalidis, “Coronavirus face masks could have a devastating effect on the environment”, Energy News Live (ENL) Interview with OceasnsAsia Environment Group, 17 March 2020, https://www.energylivenews.com/2020/03/17/coronavirus-face-masks-could-have-a-devastating-effect-on-the-environment/
Louise Boyle, “Discarded Coronavirus Face Masks and Gloves Rising Threat to Ocean Life, Conservationists Warn”, Independent Web Portal, New York, 16 April 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/coronavirus-masks-gloves-oceans-pollution-waste-a9469471.html
 United Nations Environment Programme, “Marine Litter Legislation: A Toolkit for Policymakers”, Report by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2016. https://www.unenvironment.org/explore-topics/oceans-seas/what-we-do/working-regional-seas/marine-litter