The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) is an important source of study material for IAS, especially for the current affairs segment. In this section, we give you the gist of the EPW magazine every week. The important topics covered in the weekly are analysed and explained in a simple language, all from a UPSC perspective.
Mounting Plastic Waste
- Prime Minister recently announced that India will be made plastic pollution free, and a blanket ban on single-use plastic as part of a broader campaign to “rid” India of it by 2022.
What are Plastics?
- Plastics are non-biodegradable, synthetic polymers. They are made-up of long chain hydrocarbons with additives and can be moulded into finished products.
- These polymers are broken into monomers such as ethylene, propylene, vinyl, styrene and benzene, etc.
- Finally, the monomers are polymerised chemically into different categories of plastics.
About Plastic Pollution
- In the recent decades, there has been a drastic change in the composition of waste, with the increase in the use of plastics.
- Around 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste is generated in India every day. Of this, nearly 40% is neither collected nor recycled.
- Petroleum-based plastic is not biodegradable. It usually goes into a landfill where it is buried or it gets into the water and finds its way into the ocean.
- Since plastic does not decompose into a natural substance like soil, it degrades (break down) into tiny particles after many years.
- It releases toxic chemicals (additives that were used to shape and harden the plastic) in the process of breaking down which make their way into our food and water supply.
- A major threat to oceans according to a 2017 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report, micro plastics are estimated to constitute up to 30% of marine litter polluting the oceans.
- People living in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam along rivers and coastlines are the most impacted by plastic pollution.
- Low-income communities near plastic production sites face more health impacts, due to greater exposure to toxins and waste, and bear the brunt of the impacts of improper plastic disposal and incineration.
- Henderson Island in the South Pacific is the most plastic polluted of any island recorded to date.
Effects of Plastic Pollution on humans
The ingestion of micro plastics is very dangerous for humans as these substances contain high concentrations of toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls.
- These poisonous chemicals are now found in the human bloodstream, causing cancer, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity and many other ailments.
- Current research has now also established that humans are ingesting plastic equivalent to a credit card in a week. The main source of ingestion remains tap and bottled water.
- Other sources for plastic to enter human bloodstream is by the microplastics which is directly released as microbeads in facial wash or toothpaste.
Challenges in reducing plastic consumption
Even with speculations of a ban of plastics, it is evident that the basic groundwork is missing. There remains a lack of clarity on the definition of single-use plastic, with no guidelines issued regarding its usage or any clear plans forwarded to stop the usage or to provide for alternatives.
- In medical use, for instance, plastic is considered safe and clean, even though there are reports indicating that plastic bottles contaminate the medicines stored in them and standards for safe plastic packaging are not maintained in India.
- Though there has been enough data on ill-effects of usage of plastic, most of these facts, even if known, have not managed to move humans to reduce plastic use.
- Use of plastic has become part of a culture in which those who consume and litter are not supposed to be responsible for either cleaning after themselves or to bother about what will happen to the waste they are producing.
- Alternatives are more dangerous as studies suggests that using alternative materials such as paper and glass, could be more harmful to the environment than plastic itself.
- Bioplastics made out of plant material or even areca bio plates are not easily biodegradable if littered in the open environment.
- Further, companies in India have shown preference to importing of plastic, despite import bans, as they find it cheaper than collecting and recycling locally generated waste.
- The recycling trade work has worked in a way that toxic waste and polluting factories have been moving to the “lands and hands of the poor” in the name of commerce and livelihoods.
- Plastic waste, segregation at the source is the key to make recycling viable.
- Multi-layered plastics used in most food packaging are difficult to recycle and a mandatory collect-back system needs to be ensured by an effective implementation of extended producer responsibility.
- There is also a need to further develop the recycling technologies and processing methods, as most of the plastic in India is downcycled, which means PET (polyethylene terephthalate) gets recycled into a low-quality product.
- However, a circular plastics economy—that is, when all the produced plastic gets reused and recycled—is possible only to an extent, as recycling has its limits and can be carried out for the same plastic only a few times.
- Most municipalities, however, are struggling to implement existing plastic and solid waste regulations.
- In the absence of proper waste management, degraded and dirty plastic makes recycling more expensive, unsafe, and water intensive. Therefore, implementation of laws in spirit is important going forward
- Mounting waste, thus, is a problem that is getting created because of improper disposal, as much as by increased consumption.
- In addition to the prudent use of different materials, what needs to be addressed is the throwaway culture that replaces the tendencies of reuse, and a disregard and disassociation with the waste that gets produced.
- If not reduced, societies will keep choking on the waste that they produce.
The NITI Aayog has come up with its Health Index for Indian states. The latest Health Index released in June 2019 titled “Healthy States, Progressive India,” provides a snapshot of the current status of the health sector across Indian states and union territories.
- It is the Second Edition of “Healthy States, Progressive India” report.
- The first round of the Health Index was released in 2018, which measured the annual and incremental performances of states and UTs for period 2014-15 (base year) to 2015-16 (reference year).
- The report has been prepared in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare with technical assistance from the World Bank.
- The Index ranks the States and Union Territories based on 23 health-related indicators, including neonatal mortality rate, under-five mortality rate, proportion of low birth weight among new-borns, proportion of districts with functional Cardiac Care Units, full immunisation coverage and proportion of specialist positions vacant at district hospitals.
- These 23 indicators were divided into three broad domains:
- Health outcomes (10 indicators);
- Governance and information (3 indicators); and
- Key inputs/processes (10 indicators).
- The ranking is done under three categories — larger states, smaller states and Union territories (UTs). This ensures comparison among similar entities.
Findings of the report:
- Kerala has occupied the top slot in terms of health performance while Uttar Pradesh retained the worst performer tag.
- Kerala is followed by Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
- States at the bottom of the list were Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.
- Only about half the States and UTs have showed an improvement in the overall score between 2015-16 and 2017-18.
- Kerala and Tamil Nadu have already reached the 2030 SDG target for neonatal mortality rate (NMR), which is 12 neonatal deaths per 1,000 live births.
- The general positive correlation between the Health Index scores and the economic development levels of states and UTs as measured by per-capita net state domestic product (NSDP) has been highlighted in the report.
Significance of the Index
- Health Index has been developed as a tool to leverage co-operative and competitive federalism to accelerate the pace of achieving health outcomes.
- It would also serve as an instrument for “nudging” States & Union Territories (UTs) and the Central Ministries to a much greater focus on output and outcome-based measurement of annual performance than is currently the practice.
- With the annual publication of the Index and its availability on public domain on a dynamic basis, it is expected to keep every stakeholder alert to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Goal number 3.
- Weightage assigned to the three domains while calculating the index is different for each of the category i.e, larger states, smaller states and Union territories (UTs). This distorts the understanding of the index.
- The data source for constructing the index is based on departmental reporting, the Health Management Information System (HMIS), and the state-run vertical disease control programme. HMIS, notoriously known for over-reporting, misreporting, and time lags.
- The report acknowledges that there are huge disparities in the data integrity measures across states and UTs.
Problems with Indicators:
- Crucial indicators of health outcomes are missing or are not considered for constructing the index.
- For example, indicators widely used as “health outcomes” in World Health Statistics of WHO, such as life expectancy at birth, maternal mortality, disability adjusted life years, including incidence of malaria, are not considered.
- Redundant indicators such as sex ratio at birth (SRB) are included in constructing the index. The SRB is an outcome indicator for gender disparity, but certainly not for health attainment. Thus, even if a population suffers from poor health, the natural ratio would not alter without human intervention.
- Similarly, the health of a population cannot be judged based on its total fertility rate (TFR) which is another indicator that is considered.
- Further, the health input domain does not consider crucial indicators.
- For example, indicators widely used as “inputs” in the World Health Statistics, such as doctors per thousand population, hospital beds per thousand population, nursing and midwifery personnel per thousand population, people with potable drinking water supply, per capita government spending on health, percentage of people with health insurance, and percentage of population using clean fuel were not considered.
- Also, the out-of-pocket expenses and per capita health expenditure, which are widely used in constructing indices, have not been considered.
- There is a lot of multicollinearity within a group of indicators. Tuberculosis (TB) and HIV are correlated, and then there are two similar indicators for TB (notification rate + success rate, whereas only prevalence of TB in a population would suffice as a health outcome indicator).
- The indicators do not justify the overcrowding in public health facilities and access to healthcare. While other standard reports would use these ratios as input indicators, this report does not.
- The time window in the report for measuring incremental change is extremely small. 2015–16 (base year) against 2017–18 (reference year). Most of the health outcomes do not have a direct intervention to response rate in one year.
- To conclude with some degree of confidence about improvement or decline, at least three consecutive data points are needed. The inference, therefore, is grossly misleading.
The report would come handy in understanding how the states are doing in public health at any given point. However, to assess whether the state is making progress or not (as this report does) would be erroneous, as no time-series data is available.
For more EPW articles, read “Gist of EPW”