sulabh swatchh bharat

Thursday, 20-June-2019

When Clean is Ugly

Most of us are familiar with Ugly Indians, those who push and shove in queues, litter and make a spectacle of themselves. But The Ugly Indian you will read about below is of a different kind

Imagine random people, no organization, yet a pre-determined schedule, targets and ‘quality control’.  Imagine such a setup trying to tackle centuries old problem of India. If it is too hard to imagine, you are most welcome to Bengaluru. Welcome to The Ugly Indian.


It’s been six years since the people’s initiative called The Ugly Indian got underway. Since then, Bengaluru’s residents have sensed a distinct decline in the sight of garbage, or the wafting stench of freshly ‘delivered’ urine whether on the 80 Feet Road, Koramangala or the flyover near EcoSpace or the Richmond Circle flyover.


What started six years ago is visible in these areas, clean, beautified spaces, decorated with colorful patterns and figures. You could be forgiven for wanting to pinch yourself, even take a selfie just to confirm what you are seeing.  But the end result will leave you in no doubt: something beautiful is indeed happening in Bengaluru, and it’s a purely people’s initiative which has sustained and spread.


The people behind this don’t want to be known (how Un-Indian!).  They don’t want their names out there, they don’t have any hierarchy, they operate out of a “common sense problem solving approach”. Their website underscores that “We aim to make a change from within - one that sustains because everyone wants it and is comfortable with it.”

In a country like India, where there is a severe people - resource mismatch, most of our problems are blamed on the population and the ‘system’ that is thriving in the country. There is a common perception that problems related to education, cleanliness, health, sanitation, etc can’t be tackled easily because of the scale of such issues. The Ugly Indian group is taking a innovative approach towards such mindset.


The website makes no extravagant promises, rather there is an admission: “We are realists, and accept that many of India's problems are hard to solve even if the government and public work closely together and money was freely available.”


There is also the hint of a possible solution: “We view the problem of visible filth on our streets as a behavior and attitude problem that can be solved in our lifetime (or rather, this month). This can be achieved without spending money or changing legislation or systems. It requires coming up with smart ideas to change people's rooted cultural behavior and attitudes. And making sure those ideas work.”


So far so good.  How does it work on the ground? How does one ensure a spot that has been cleaned doesn’t get mucked up again?

The key is sustainability. A newly cleaned spot should survive 90 days without any supervision. This requires changes in public behavior. Shop owners, garbage collectors, the authorities involved, in short all the stakeholders of that specific spot need to be identified and brought on board.


In posh Church Street, it took the Ugly Indians weeks to convince 100 odd shops to change their garbage dumping behavior. It has been almost 5 years since that spot was fixed, not a single digression from the expected behavior has been observed.


When the groundwork has been laid, a group of volunteers join together with their equipment and resources to actually clean up and beautify the place. And who are these volunteers? Any Ugly Indian, who feels enough has been said already and now is the time to get the hands dirty. Gloves, brooms, paintbrushes, cleaning chemicals are procured and volunteers come in together to first clean the place systemically. Sometimes, the municipal workers also join in.


Once the cleaning is complete, the volunteers put their artistic cloaks on and set on to beautify the place. Very simple, minimalistic designs and patterns are used, which are aesthetically pleasing and blend with the surroundings. The idea is for the people to realize the aesthetic potential of the place and deter them from creating a mess out of that place again. Flower pots and benches work well in that sense. If there is a danger the flower pots could be stolen or broken, there are lots of cheap pots available that are not worth stealing.


For those curious to know how The Ugly Indians actually work, here’s a tip: Join them whether in Bengaluru or in the other cities where people have banded together to clear out the filth and win back their public spaces.  In this Swachh Bharat year, let’s all be Ugly Indians!