sulabh swatchh bharat

Saturday, 24-March-2018

when ‘ugly’ is clean

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

“Kaam Chalu, Munh Band”. This has been one of the most misunderstood and misused Indian adage, since forever. “Munh chaalu, kaam band” is what rather we are known for. We Indians are habituated of concentrating most of our energies on empty talks, at the cost of actual on-ground work. But, things have been changing since 2010. On one fine Sunday morning, a group of volunteers in Bangalore decided to transform one of the most ignored aspects of Indian public life – streets. And, things they say, are changing since then, one street corner at a time.
If you are walking on the 80 Feet Road, Koramangala or the flyover near EcoSpace or the Richmond Circle flyover in Bangalore, you would expect to see garbage dumped in a corner, the walls strewn with multiple layers of non-descript posters. If you are having a particularly bad day, add to that the stench of urine emanating from the sidewalks, strong enough to send you into a tizzy. But contrary to your assumption, you will see a clean, beautified space, decorated with colourful patterns and figures. You might want to pinch yourself to actually believe what you are seeing.
These places in Bangalore are just a few examples of this brilliant initiative – The Ugly Indian. Numerous other spots in Bangalore have been cleaned and beautified. Not only Bangalore, it has spread to cities like Meerut, Bhopal, Pune and many more. Their modus operandi is quite disruptive and counter-intuitive. There is no organization, no fixed group, just few, random people who want to change the status quo.

Modus operandi
The whole idea emanates from the very name of the initiative, The Ugly Indian. We Indians are one of the cleanest and most hygiene friendly when we are inside our homes. A tiny speck of dust is frowned upon, in Indian homes. But, as soon as we step outside the confines of our homes, our perception of cleanliness goes for a toss. We treat our public places with utmost disregard and indifference. Wrappers, polybags, paper pieces, paan stains, etc are not even considered dirty. Garbage on streets has become so common that we have accepted it as an inherent part of our societal structure. The first step to deal with this problem was acceptance. Acceptance that we Indians are indeed ugly.
When the mental barrier against the name was conquered, the focus was to keep things simple. This simplicity was to later become one of the greatest strengths of The Ugly Indian. The group would start by identifying a ‘spot’, which needs to be ‘fixed’. And by fixing, it didn’t mean, just cleaning the spot. As ample examples in the past have proved, it takes us, The Ugly Indians, only a couple of days to restore the spot, back to its original ‘glory’. Some of the examples of these prospective spots were, corners which have organically become garbage dumps, the corners which are routinely washed by urinating men, the walls painted red by paan-spitters, etc.
Once the spot was identified, they won’t directly jump into the cleaning business. The real purpose behind the work would be achieved only if it is sustainable. The sustainability criteria by The Ugly Indian is for the spot to survive 90 days without any supervision. There can’t be a short term fix on this issue, as this requires changes in people’s behavioural patterns. On the other hand, the issue can’t be ignored as it will defeat the whole purpose of cleaning the spot. So, a lot of focus has to be on influencing people’s behaviour. The shop owners, the garbage collectors, the authorities involved, in short all the stakeholders of that specific spot.
The usual way to go about it would be lecturing, venting anger, giving sermons and confrontation. The Ugly Indian would do none of these. Instead they would focus on convincing and persuasion, which will have a long-lasting impact. They focused on building trust and confidence among the stakeholders. Of course, it requires time, patience and sheer doggedness. For example, in upmarket Church Street of Bangalore, it took them weeks to convince 100 odd shops to change their garbage dumping behaviour. It has been almost five years since that spot was fixed, not a single digression from the expected behaviour has been observed.
When the groundwork has been done, a group of volunteers would 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 benevolent municipal workers also join in.
Once the cleaning is complete, the volunteers put their artistic cloak on and set on to beautify the place. Very simple, minimalistic designs and patterns are used, which are aesthetically pleasing and mingles well with the surroundings. The idea is for the people to realise the aesthetic potential of the place and deter them from creating a mess out of that place again. Some other hacks like placing flower pots, building benches, etc ensure the sustainability of the spotfix. The flower pots are at the risk of getting stolen or being broken. A simple solution is to use a cheap pot, which nobody wants
to steal.

ingenuity of the idea
What exactly has made The Ugly Indian achieves more than 500 spotfixes in over 20 cities in last 5 years?  Their simplistic problem-solving approach? Their novelty in implementing workable tweaks? Their gentle nudge to people’s behaviour? Or all of it. For example, one of their criteria is anonymity. They don’t want volunteers to wildly publicise the work. So much so that when The Ugly Indian was invited as an organisation to deliver a TED Talk, they chose to do it under the alias ‘Anamik Nagrik’, with the guy wearing a mask.
In our society, a lot of important work becomes secondary to the pomp and photo-ops associated with such events. This dilutes the significance of such work and creates a shallow impression in the minds of people. The Ugly Indian wants to break this mould of getting the work done. A work shouldn’t be attached to someone’s identity, rather, it has to be the result of collective action. Anonymity ensures visible results without any pomp and show and also keeps frivolous candidates at bay. Now, this aspect is not just focused on ensuring clean public places, but how a simple nudge can change social psychology over a period of time.
Another of their ideas, TereBins, is a perfect example of simple solutions becoming a part of the system rather than completely overhauling it. One common excuse of Indians is the lack of enough dustbins on the roads. TereBins have been designed exclusively for this purpose. They are small-sized dustbins, meant for small litter like paper cups, wrappers, cigarette packets, etc. They have been designed to be heavy, so that they are stable at their place and can’t be stolen easily. They are placed at strategic locations, keeping municipal authorities in loop. They become a part of the existing garbage collecting system, effectively reducing their workload. The litter which they had to pick from the streets are now directly picked from the TereBins. The TereBins are open for adoption at a minimal cost of Rs 2,000.
The ingenuity of The Ugly Indian’s approach not only lies in their simple, workable ideas, but also in the social and psychological biases they have been able to break. A decade back, an aesthetically pleasing sidewalk on an Indian road would have sounded like a pipedream. Today, we have numerous such examples to witness. Their strong focus on integration with existing system, helps in knowledge and resource sharing with the public authorities, creating a win-win situation for both.
Their simplistic design makes it easier for the model to replicate, both laterally as well as in cross-section. For example, similar model with some tweaks, can be replicated to drive National Mission for Clean Ganga. The ghats along the Ganges can be cleaned and beautified with effective local community participation. The government need to create the right support structures and with minimal intervention, ghats can be ‘fixed’.
We, as a society, face a multitude of problems daily. The scale of these problems increase day by day. Enough has been said and little has been done to actually solve these problems. The time is ripe for the ideas like The Ugly Indian to prosper and proliferate, where action and visible results are the only priority. The time is perfectly ripe for the adage to live itself –“Kaam Chalu Munh Band”.