A young Indian ragpicker looks over New Delhi after collecting usable material from a garbage dump at the Bhalswa landfill site in October 2018.
New Delhi CNN  — 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bold plan to tackle single-use plastics has been scrapped.

In a sweeping Independence Day address on August 15, Modi suggested that he would ban single-use plastic across the country from Wednesday, the 150th anniversary of the birth of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

“Can we take this first big step on October 2 towards making India free from single-use plastic? Come my countrymen, let us take this forward,” Modi told a crowd of thousands gathered at Delhi’s historic Red Fort for the annual Independence Day speech.

“Single-use plastic is the root cause of many of our problems – but the solution has to come from within, from us,” he added.

Modi reiterated this just days later during his monthly radio address. He announced the September 11 launch of the annual Swachhata hi Seva campaign (Cleanliness is Service), saying: “This time, our emphasis must be on plastic… Let us celebrate Gandhi Jayanti (Gandhi’s Birthday) this year as a mark of a plastic-free Mother India,” he said on August 25.

The prohibited single-use items potentially included plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain sachets.

But those plans now appear to have been shelved. An official announcement was expected Wednesday to coincide with the anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, but rather than a blanket ban, the move is now being touted as an awareness campaign.

“There is an announcement being made by the Prime Minister calling for a complete end to single-use plastic in the nation, however, there is no ban in place and no penalties would be imposed by the government. In Delhi, we will be setting up collection bins at all our waste collection centers so people can deposit the single-use plastic they own,” Ram Kumar, a sanitation superintendent from the Delhi Municipal Corporation, told CNN on Tuesday.

A tweet posted by the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission clarified the government’s stance, writing it “is not about banning single-use plastic but creating awareness and a people’s movement to curb its use.”

CNN has reached out to the Indian Environment Ministry for comment.

Dealing with plastic in a plummeting economy.

With its 1.3 billion population, India consumed an estimated 15.5 million tons of plastic in 2016-17, according to Plastindia Foundation, an organization of major associations and institutions associated with plastic. That number is predicted to increase to 20 million tons by 2019-20. 

“Anything to do with looking at issues of environmental management is a good idea and plastic has been a big problem on this issue of environmental mismanagement and a great contributor to what we are looking at today. So, any effort by the government to reduce impact is a welcome decision,” Satish Sinha, associate director of Toxics Link, a New Delhi-based environmental group, told CNN.

But a crackdown on plastic could also hit an economy expanding at its slowest pace in six years, with unemployment at a 45-year high.

Jairam Ramesh, a former Indian Environment Minister with the opposition Congress party, tweeted: “As Env Min I resisted blanket ban on use of single-use plastics. Plastics industry employs lakhs (hundreds of thousands) & the real problem is how we dispose & recycle waste. The ban will only grab headlines, home & abroad, and mask the Modi regime’s true environmental record.”

An Indian worker watches a truck dump trash for sorting in New Delhi in April 2019.

India’s plastic industry officially employs around 4 million people across 30,000 processing units, out of which 90% are small to medium-sized businesses, according to India Brand Equity Foundation, a trust set up by the Department of Commerce, Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Plastics also support thousands employed informally such as ragpickers as well as street food and market vendors who are reliant on single-use plastic.

According to Sinha, compromises will have to made to protect the environment but he believes it could foster innovation.

“To save the environment, some people will have to pay a price but it’s not too big a price to pay. It is also a great opportunity for the industry to look at alternatives… This may trigger new materials coming into the market, which can have the same use without the same adverse impact on the environment.”