About two decades ago, Bhutan became the first country to ban plastics. It made headlines around the world, some calling our country the first plastic-free country. Foreign media still romanticise Bhutan and the many still believe we are plastic-free.
The reality is altogether different. What is freely, cheaply and abundantly available is plastic, especially single-use plastic bags. Recently, residents of Phuentsholing questioned the ban on plastics when custom officials in Phuentsholing seized their plastic bags bound for Thimphu and beyond.
The ban on plastics started in a dzongkhag tshogdu decision in Samdrupjongkhar and was later adopted by the central government. Considered environment unfriendly and identified as one of the most hazardous wastes, environmentalists lauded Bhutan’s initiative.
But the ban never worked. It had to be reinforced in 2005 and again in 2019. The success or lack thereof is there for everyone to see – in shops, drains and landfills.
Then there are several other ‘bans’. We banned billboards to preserve the uniqueness of a Bhutanese city. We standardised signboards. But all these are only on paper.
The ban on the sale of tobacco, after all the drama and controversy, has become a joke. It should be an example of how bans don’t work.
The ban on the sale of tobacco was driven by a Bumthang dzongkhag tshogdu decision in 1999. The National Assembly in 2004 decided to ban the sale of tobacco for both health and religious reasons. The Tobacco Control Act 2010 took the ban another step, criminalising many people, but failing to meet its intended purpose of reducing consumption of tobacco. The ban, in fact, led to a thriving black market. The government legalised the sale of tobacco to curb its smuggling during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Everybody knows bans in Bhutan are not working. The biggest problem is we are not asking why they do not work. The lack of seriousness in implementing laws and rules is behind the failure. We are making a mockery of legislators, legislations and implementers. At the rate our rules are being flaunted, we shall soon be known as a country that does not enforce rules and regulations!
It’s more concerning that the bans, rules and regulations are initiated to mark important occasions and, by not implementing it, we show disrespect to good intentions.
It is high time for a relook into all the legislations that do not work and look for practical solutions instead.
Let us not ban for the sake of banning but ensure it is practical. Perhaps bans are not working because we do not provide alternatives. There should also be solutions and alternatives to the bans. Education and awareness would be more effective.