By Dean Nelson
The Indian city is in crisis. Its multiplying residents are starved of electricity and water, public services are minimal or barely maintained, sewage floods their streets, pavements serve as rubbish dumps and public walls double as urinals.
Cities that should be celebrated for their history and architectural heritage are more often described as ‘dirty, dangerous, unsightly, poor, disorganized, opportunist, corrupt, careless and inhumane,’ said India’s leading conservation architect Ratish Nanda to summarize the country’s metropolitan anarchy.
The details of urban misery have become staple ingredients in the country’s newspapers. Illegal and poorly constructed buildings collapse, roads subside and traffic is at a standstill. In the capital, unfit vehicles, battered buses and tilting trucks pump toxic fumes into the dusty atmosphere. In 2017, ten of the world’s twenty most polluted cities were in India—Gwalior was branded the world’s second most polluted city after Zabol in Iran, while Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh was ranked third. Delhi was the world’s eleventh worst city for air quality. Bengaluru, India’s ‘garden city’, ‘Silicon Valley’ and high-tech hope for the future, however, was not among them. The country’s brightest software engineers work here for the world’s biggest IT companies. The Indian Space Research Organisation, India’s own NASA, has its headquarters here, along with the country’s leading defence manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
It is one of India’s most cosmopolitan cities and on any given day its people are working on the next big smartphone app, tweaking a fighter jet or aiming a satellite at the Martian orbit.
But in October 2010, two of its inhabitants decided too many of their fellow Bengalureans were so focused on the heavens or the virtual world that they had overlooked the filth they were standing in. Only 2,100 of the 5,000 tonnes of rubbish generated by the city every day is collected by its waste management services. The remaining 2,900 tonnes is tipped into illegal dumps and thrown on the streets.
They posted a picture of one of these spots on their website along with a set of questions: ‘Do you know this place? Is it like this because of corrupt politicians, lax municipal workers or because we don’t care? Can we do something about it?’
The scene in the picture could have been snapped in any Indian city, but it was on Church Street, in the heart of Bengaluru’s lively business and entertainment district. The pavement in front of a fenced-off electricity junction box had become an illegal rubbish dump. The fence and the pavement before it were broken and piled high with the trash of the surrounding offices, restaurants and fast food joints. There were plastic bags of every colour, coffee cups, polystyrene packaging panels and takeaway cartons with discarded snacks. A huge coil of cable had been abandoned there and a pedestrian was relieving himself on it.
Our sanitation spies watched the spot over seventy-two hours to establish exactly who was responsible for the mess and produced a forensic account of it on their site. Office workers from the Times of India building opposite and Wipro—one of India’s leading technology companies—dumped their coffee cups and takeaway boxes there every morning while cleaners from nearby shops deposited their trash from the previous day.
The spot had once been home to a dumpster which was later removed in a state drive to make the city ‘clean as Singapore’. Its then chief minister had believed that if he removed all the bins people would take their rubbish home and dispose of it in an eco-friendly way.
What in fact happens, our stake-out team discovered, is they simply dump it illegally in the same spots where the bins had once been, transforming them into filthy and smelly ‘orphan sites’.
The site was also an underground intersection for storm water and sewage drains and, running through them, electricity and telecom cables belonging to the city’s several broadband and telephone operators. At any given time, one of the seven or so government agencies or companies with subterranean hardware here is digging up the road or pavement to repair their cable or pipe below. The mud and stones they remove is left in a mound on the pavement and rarely put back—that’s always somebody else’s job.
When the sewage pipes became blocked and their contents flooded the ground above, government workers jumped in to remove the obstacles. Many of the area’s power cuts, they explained, are caused by hungry rats which chew through the electric cables below these illegal city dumps. ‘This is a great environment for wildlife, particularly rats, to breed, who feed on the garbage, gnaw on the electrical wires and eventually cause a short circuit and minor explosion and blackout. Very often, electricity blackouts are solved by removing the charred carcass of a rat from the wires,’ one of our observers explained.
In fact, the illegal dumping site and rodent mela the site had become was considered an accepted part of the urban landscape and while no one liked it, no one saw it as their responsibility to clean it. And because it was a dirty dump, more people felt it was acceptable to toss their rubbish there: a classic example of what economists call a ‘tragedy of the commons’.
But within three days our undercover heroes had changed the picture and posted the proof of what could be done if anyone cared enough: the rubbish was bagged and cleared, the pavement stones replaced and cemented, the cable coils and abandoned section of fence were removed and the curbstones painted black and white by turns. Potted plants were placed along the electricity junction box fence and the sidewalk was passable once again.
They called their intervention a ‘spot-fix’ and posted pictures of it on their website to inspire others to follow their lead. They had not blamed anyone for the mess, they had invited local security guards, sweepers, drivers and office workers to help them so all around felt like stakeholders, and it had cost them around `800. There had been no plenary sessions with experts, official no-objection certificates or self-congratulatory press conferences. It had been achieved by a couple of anonymous agent provocateurs with a few tins of paint, a bag of cement and the goodwill they’d created by asking local staff and workers for their advice and help.
Over steaming hot cups of chai at early morning tea stands, they’d formed friendships with the migrant guards, sweepers and cleaners many middle-class and high-caste Indians rarely regard, and then only as ancillary. Here, they were asking for their expert knowledge of the problem, enquiring about their own lives and offering to help them.
It was the start of a citizens’ fightback not only against a ‘helpless’ or idle bureaucracy, official corruption and incompetent, uncoordinated government but also against deeply ingrained cultural habits. They had exposed one of the most visible and nocuous outcomes of jugaad quick fix thinking but refused to point the finger: it was every Indian’s problem and theirs, exclusively, to solve. What was needed was a change of attitude and a few anonymous leaders. Anonymous because their selfless work must inspire rather than arouse suspicion of their motives. Their motto is ‘Kaam chalu, mooh bandh’—‘Just work, no talk’: Their compatriots will talk and argue forever, they say, but rarely roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.
These particular Indians, however, are ‘sick of waiting for someone else to do it for them. All the big talk of [Bengaluru] being a global city and all that is meaningless, if something like this can be allowed to happen right under your noses. And they have picked this spot as a symbol of all that is wrong. If they can reverse this civic disaster trend here, at this spot, they surmise, there is hope,’ one of their collaborators wrote in an online book which records their experiment.
The book and website were provocatively named The Ugly Indian and blamed the squalor of the country’s cities on widely shared cultural attitudes among its people.
‘It’s time we admitted that many of India’s problems are because many of us are Ugly Indians. Look at any Indian street, we have pathetic civic standards. We tolerate an incredible amount of filth. This is not about money, know-how, or systems. This is about attitudes. About a rooted cultural behaviour. The Ugly Indian can take the world’s best systems and find a way around it,’ the protagonists explain on their site.
It could be a definition of jugaad—people bypassing systems, finding their own personal solutions which are often substandard or harmful to others.
This has been excerpted from Jugaad Yatra, published by Aleph Book Company.
Dean Nelson is an award-winning investigative journalist and foreign correspondent. He spent ten years in Delhi covering India and the South Asia region from Afghanistan to Myanmar and beyond, first for the Sunday Times and later for the Daily Telegraph. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and three children and continues to travel in Asia on assignment.