2 months ago

Jute packaging no longer on the cards!

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It seems -- and in all probability so -- that mandatory jute packaging has lost the urgency that just a few years ago came as a major initiative to curb pollution and water-logging, while also aiming at a breakthrough in the increased domestic consumption of jute materials. What is surprising is that the authorities have even backtracked from enforcement of restrictions on the use of polythene or synthetic materials for packaging all kinds of groceries in the shops, kitchen markets and super stores. One may recall that following the restrictions imposed in 2002, the first country to do so in the world, there was a surge for a while in the use of paper and other biodegradable materials (in the absence of jute bags) for packaging, and no doubt it did signal a shift that further needed to firm up things in a sustained manner.    

What promised like a good prospect has apparently fizzled out. However, there were quite a few moves including framing of a law, and a verdict by the Appellate division of the High Court, to make jute packaging mandatory in respect of a variety of commodities. These, though reinforced later by law enforcers' drives in the market places, have apparently fallen flat as the government's effort to replace packaging by plastic or synthetic materials with jute sacks/bags has remained unheeded.

The government had framed the law on the use of jute sacks in 2010, but in the absence of rules to be followed, it was largely ignored. Subsequently, a set of rules for implementation of the law had been devised which among others sought to ensure use of jute sacks in packaging a number of products, including rice. The ministry of textiles and jute on September 26, 2013 issued a circular on mandatory use of jute bags for commercial packaging of rice by the private rice millers, husking millers and rice traders. It had also asked them to stop using polythene/plastic bags by December 2014. But the circular was far from seeing the results it was meant for as millers and traders paid the least heed to comply with its instructions. Subsequently, some rice mill owners filed a writ petition with the High Court seeking a stay order on the enforcement of the circular. In response, the High Court in an ad-interim order stayed the government directive relating to mandatory jute-bag use. However, following the government's move in the form of Appeal, the Appellate Division vacated the stay order upholding the official directive on mandatory jute packaging.

It may be noted that while making jute packaging of rice mandatory, the directive of the government had included a number of other products. Those were-- paddy, wheat, maize, fertiliser, sugar, spices, turmeric, onion, ginger, garlic, coriander, pulses, potato, flour, crude flour (ata) and rice bran. Later, two other products-poultry and fish feed were also included in the list.

Enforcing compulsory use of jute sacks for packaging, especially food grains, has for long been viewed as a crucially important matter for a variety of reasons. In the wake of the global campaign  on the use of environment friendly, biodegradable natural materials in as many areas as possible, it is highly likely that Bangladesh being the producer of world's finest variety of natural fibre-- jute, would make the best use of it to draw benefits in tangible economic terms. Experts are of the opinion that if enforced strictly, use of jute sacks will no doubt go beyond environmental security as it will ensure better price for jute growers and jute-goods manufacturers, who are currently facing a lingering slump in demand for their products.

It appears now that all that has been done is no more than  a pious intent, devoid of understanding the ground realities. In respect of most government directives in this country, the common factor coming in the way of implementation is the impracticability or unfavourable ground realities. As for the use of jute sacks, the immediate difficulty faced by the millers and traders was non-availability of the sacks in sufficient quantities. Coupled with it was the price of jute sacks -- reportedly higher -- compared to those made of plastic or other artificial materials. Reusability of the latter was also a matter of convenience that seemed to discourage users from being compliant.

What is important is that the authorities should have looked into making jute packaging a viable and convenient alternative to non-jute packaging. While sufficient supply is a vital factor here, equally vital is the affordability-the latter has been flagged time and again by the rice millers and traders. This being the case, the onus is obviously on the BJMC to suggest ways on how to go about. It is not known whether the state agency has taken up the matter with the government with concrete proposals.

It is not clear whether there has been any improvement in availability of jute sacks lately. A report published recently says that the state owned Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) is now in a position to double its production of jute sacks from the existing 200-250 million pieces a year, if market demand grows.

It would be utterly shocking if the authorities no longer feel the importance, if not urgency, of the issue. Framing the law is basically an expression of intent, and hence the rest in terms of execution depends on the methods that are to be applied. It would be imperative for the authorities to determine the demand of jute sacks and the country's current production capacity in order to take a pragmatic action in this regard.

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