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State Capacity And The Ban on Plastic Bags in Islamabad

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The political economy literature strongly advocates for the ‘state capacity’ and an autonomous bureaucracy to promote the objectives of a ‘developmental state’. The literature also states that in the case of Pakistan, there has been endemic deterioration in the state capacity across the board in institutions in the recent past.

In that backdrop, it has been a welcome change to see the city administration in Islamabad to implement its announced ban on the usage of plastic bags in the post-14th August 2019 phase. The ban did not kick off immediately on 14th August as this period also coincided with the Eid holidays. However, once the Eid holidays were over, the ban was implemented. Everywhere in the markets, the shopkeepers and grocery stores refused to pack products in plastic bags and instead asked for the cloth bags to be purchased, or started to use paper bags, light degradable version of transparent bags, or simply a nylon net.

The ban on plastic bags has been effective so far. However, these are still early days. One is not sure whether it will continue with the same missionary zeal or will be reversed. There is also the loss of livelihoods for the erstwhile plastic bag manufacturers (who might switch to making cloth or paper bags now). There is also some inconvenience for the customers, as in the initial period, the shops, stores, and bakeries across the board did not store the alternatives and for example, customers were seen carrying bread and other products in their hands out of the United Bakery in F-6 after the ban.

The city administration on the directives of the federal government has been imposing fines on those who refused to comply with the ban on plastic bags. There was also chatter of an eatery having been sealed temporarily for lack of compliance. The threat of imposition of fines has been very credible and most of the local markets, including places like Jumma bazaars and Itwar bazaars, have been complying.

There are of course tremendous environmental hazards associated with the widespread usage of plastic bags including clogging of sewerage, and pollution in land and water. There was a huge need for Pakistan to ban plastic bags for a long time. However, no previous government took the matter seriously. One saw posters in NGO offices since the late 1990s against plastic bags. There might have been some small-scale awareness sessions conducted by NGOs since then.

However, there is need for the government to announce and implement a ban on plastic bags to make it effective. Small-scale awareness-raising sessions by NGOs have had no visible impact. ‘State capacity’ is needed to implement such progressive environmental initiatives. Of course, this ban should be extended to all provinces; KP already has implemented it in the past few years, according to the unconfirmed chatter.

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The environmental concerns also need to be extended by the government to implement a system of separation of organic and inorganic waste, so that the former can be easily recycled rather than lumped together in temporary garbage dumping sites. In Islamabad, there are reports of a tussle between the Metropolitan Corporation Islamabad (MCI) and Capital Development Authority (CDA) on issues including garbage disposal. Such tussles in Islamabad, Karachi and other parts of the country need to be resolved. In addition, organic, inorganic and other types of bins should be made available in the market, so that the citizens can buy them and separate various types of waste at the household level. This waste should be picked up in the same segregated manner and processed accordingly.

To refer to another development, Advisor on Finance Hafeez Shaikh has recently stated that the tax filers have increased from 1.9 million to 2.5 million in Pakistan. However, an increase in the number of tax filers may not necessarily translate into higher tax revenue. Many of us may still be non-filers, or may not be fully aware of the tax-related laws and regulations in the past or now. Yet, the increase in the number of tax filers is a good development. It needs to be expanded by launching initiatives of providing tax education to the citizens in simple and understandable language.

An initial picture that is emerging out of the (so far) effective ban on the usage of plastic bags in Islamabad, or an increase in the number of tax-filers is that we are seeing an augmentation of the ‘state capacity’ to take developmental decisions and have the ability to get them enforced. It is a development that needs to be watched and kept an eye on as this government leapfrogs for the rest of its term. It might be a transitory or limited development, or it might sustain and we might see it diffuse across the wider governmental institutions and actions. It nonetheless indicates an anti-populist decision-making (it is odd since this government has come into power on the basis of populism and still appeals to it to remain in power).

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The government is aware that customers and citizens may not like the ban on plastic bags as it might cause inconvenience to them, yet, it still moved on and got it enforced in Islamabad since it is needed for environmental reasons. The government is aware that many may not like to file the tax return, it still moved on it and is also taking on traders to get in the tax net.

This kind of political will or the state capacity is much needed in Pakistan to push the developmental agenda. The governments should not always be pleasing its potential voters or certain interest groups and need to move on measures that need not be popular. However, such measures are needed for the betterment of society and country.

There is a downside to it as well. The government’s one-sided accountability witch-hunt might again show the ‘state capacity’, yet it is detrimental to the goals of ensuring political stability, social and political cohesion, and long-term socio-economic development goals in the country. Therefore, the government needs to be mindful that it only displays its ‘state capacity’ for policy measures such as environmental protection or revenue generation and other developmental concerns and not use coercion against its political opponents in an unfair and vindictive manner.

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