All it took was Rs 850/- to fix the ugly spot in Church Street

It had been nine years since Nandan and Co had tried and met with limited success. What else can one do? Go to the press? File an RTI application? Or is there something else they can do?

X orders more coffee. He has made his point.

But who is in charge – surely there must be someone in charge? I ask.

Before plunging in to fix this corner themselves, X and V have done some basic asking around. The question they had was simple – So who’s really in charge of the street in Bangalore? They found that there was no single person or authority. And that is why the streets are such a mess. There is a maze of authorities in charge of different aspects of Bangalore’s civic infrastructure, each of which is a law unto itself – building and maintaining the roads and footpath are the responsibility of the civic authority (BBMP), while the agencies that routinely dig up the roads and footpath to access their assets beneath the road are the water and sewerage utility (BWSSB), the power utility (BESCOM), the telecom utility (BSNL), and a host of private telecom providers (Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance). The government agencies are independent, autonomous and do not take orders from each other (in fact, they are always squabbling), while the private telecom companies are totally a law unto themselves, as they rip apart the city’s roads with gay abandon.

If there are rules and laws that govern road repair after repairs/laying cables, then these are not apparent if you move around the city. The rules surely exist on paper somewhere, and there are probably good bureaucratic reasons why nothing gets done. But it is heart-breaking to see roads being dug up within days of being freshly-laid.

Since this “lack-of-coordination problem between the destroyers and builders of the roads and footpaths” is so painfully obvious to all, one would imagine that all these authorities could sit across the table, share their plans and do things in a co-ordinated manner. That would seem like a commonsense approach.  Hah! It’s probably easier to broker overnight peace in Palestine.

It’s not that well-meaning people have not tried. There have been several efforts by many to fix this problem starting at the top. Nandan Nilekani, the founder of Infosys, in his book Imagining India, wrote of his experiences with the Bangalore Agenda Task Force – a unique public-private partnership mandated by the government  in 1999 to help fix Bangalore. Of the many things he mentions, this comment on the lack of co-ordination sums it up well – “we talked about a co-ordinated green channel system, but it just didn’t work.” When so much effort and discussion has been attempted by both the powers-that-be and by well-meaning, smart empowered citizens like Nandan and his ilk, to solve what is a very obvious problem known to all, and yet there is no apparent change on the ground, what options do the public have?

What should the regular citizen do when faced with a persistent Ugly Spot near their home/office? Wait for the system to change, and then hope the change trickles down to their street? It had been nine years since Nandan and Co had tried and met with limited success. What else can one do? Go to the press? File an RTI application? Or is there something else they can do? Vote for a clean candidate, some say. But how will that help? When the BBMP Commissioner, the man in charge of the city’s roads, has said several times that he himself is powerless. And if the Commissioner and Chief Minister are unable to get things fixed, then who can? Is it that hopeless?

Well, it’s not. It’s quite simple, once you think about it rationally. Treat it like your own street – and go out there and do it yourself. Become the agency that repairs the damage that others do to your road. And see who stops you! Use your own time and money, and just go out and do it. And if the agency in charge has a problem, let them stop you. After all, what do you lose by trying? Extreme situations need extreme solutions.

That is what X and V are doing. They have decided that the four agencies involved in this spot will never really come around to working together. As long as the garbage point persists, garbage will come here everyday, rats will come and gnaw away at the wire, stray dogs will proliferate, and pedestrians will be forced off the footpath onto the narrow road. Once you get around to analyzing why s**t happens, it is so frustrating and painful that sometimes you just want to just jump in and fix it yourself.

V and X have thought this through logically. They want to address the root cause of this specific local problem, and reverse the trend. They want to first stop people from using this place as a garbage spot through directly talking to them, then repair the footpath and make it usable, and then make it so beautiful that nobody dares dirty it again. And then wait and see when the next digging-up agency comes and how they respond to this change. And if they do not restore the road, just go and do it yourself.

V and X don’t see this spot as a garbage problem – that would be too narrow a definition. Or as a Solid Waste Management issue, which is the technical phrase used to discuss garbage. They just see this spot as a symbol of a deep-rooted civic problem that creates a host of other problems – in public health, public safety, traffic issues, stray dogs, rodent growth, public aesthetics and much more. And no single government department, or NGO for that matter, is focused on taking complete charge of a physical space and ensuring it is not ugly – and prevent the other problems from happening in the first place. V and X believe this is the space that common citizens (who are generalists) should take up – to take charge of the street unconditionally. Let the specialists worry about technical matters.

At the core of this belief is that Indians are decent people – it is only when they operate in a broken system, they act like ugly Indians. Show them that the system can be made to work in their favour, and the Ugly Indian is the best person on earth. Indians don’t like to rock the boat – they go with the flow. The trick is to change the direction of flow in a way you want.

Phew. This was heavy stuff. And I was drinking it all in. It all made so much sense. And it wasn’t exactly complicated either. Just common sense, which needless to say is rather uncommon these days.

Church Street spot before the spot fix. Pic: The Ugly Indian

It’s 7pm. It’s been a long day. Time to go, says V. What’s next? I ask.

He smiles. See you tomorrow! These guys work in mysterious ways.

Are you planning a stake-out tonight too? I venture.

No, replies X – but we have got our eyes and ears ready. Three security guards are part of the team now – X and V tell them they will come at 6.30 am, and they should keep an eye on the spot.

What a day. I walk back with them to the Spot for one last look before I head to the bus stop at the Chinnaswamy Stadium.

Church Street spot after the spot fix. Pic: The Ugly Indian

I had one last question – something that had been nagging me since the very beginning. I asked: “Who pays for all this? I mean, surely all this paint and cement and tools costs a lot of money, doesn’t it?” The truth is I had no idea what all this costs, and I got the expected response. “Well, what do you think it costs?” countered V. So typical. Grrr..

I scrambled hard for a decent guess. I didn’t want to seem like a total fool. Rs 1000? I blurted. Rs 2000. Oh, I don’t know!

V smiled. “That was close. We spent a grand total of Rs 850 ($18) – much less than we would have spent on a dinner at any of the places nearby who benefited.”

Is someone funding you? I asked. Will any of these companies pay you back? Somehow it did not seem right that citizens pay from their own pocket for this. As soon as I asked, I realized it was a stupid question.

V gave me a strange look. Of course not – it’s our money, and this is a good way to spend it, isn’t it? We could also have donated the same amount to charity online, but isn’t this better – here we can see the fruits of our work.

I was stunned, but tried not to show it. That’s it? Just Rs 850? I sometimes spend that much when I go for a weekend movie and dinner at the multiplex. On myself. Then I learn that, this Rs 850 includes Rs 200 they paid to P, the mason, for this professional help.

It took just Rs 850 to fix a decades-old civic problem? This was amazing.
Could I please contribute my share, I heard myself saying, and fished out Rs 200 from my purse. To their credit and to my utter joy, they accepted it rather matter-of-factly. This was easily the best Rs 200 I had ever spent.

X shook my hand and said ‘welcome to the club.’ It turns out I was not the first to ask this question. Earlier in the day, Kumar, the Wipro employee had asked the same question and offered a Rs 100 contribution. Several others had also asked out of curiosity – and most were very confused when they were told it was being done with personal money and for no credit. In India, it is perfectly acceptable to spend huge sums of money on fixing your own house and garden, but when you spend a small amount on the road or footpath outside and do the work yourself and take no credit, people look for motives or agendas!

We’ve had this entire discussion on Spotfix funding while standing on the newly reclaimed street corner. There is no foul smell at all, the place looks and feels clean, there are no rats or dogs about, and get this – people are actually using the footpath! This is incredible – how the presence of an inviting looking footpath and absence of ugliness immediately changes people’s behaviour. Without their actually realizing it.

I wave goodbye to my new acquaintances. I find it totally unbelievable that I could spend so much time with these two guys and not even exchange names and numbers. They have given me a codename Agent S and have sworn me to secrecy. They ask if I could come in a bit earlier tomorrow and take a look at the spot, and I readily agree. I am now part of this secret club and will do my bit! How exciting!

I take notes on my back home – I am just dying to write all this in my blog, but I am sworn to secrecy. Damn – this story needs to be told! What learning! I had taken a short-term MBA course at a local management institute, and we had read several case studies from the US. They were interesting, but somehow distant and one couldn’t really relate to them. Here was a brilliant case study on my own street in my own city! This needs to be documented, this needs to be shared with the world. And I began taking notes in my diary. I decided to click a few pictures the next day to add to my record. One day, this story will need to be told, and I will be the one to tell it! This is my chance to surprise these ugly Indians!

I reflected on the fact that just Rs 850 was spent to achieve so much. X had said that everyone has a mental limit upto which they would spend, no questions asked. Rs 500 each worked well as a personal threshold for X and V – for this experiment (they called it an ‘experiment’, to me it seemed like a huge project!). Sadly not enough Indians think like this. They may spend thousands on personal entertainment, but ask for anonymous contributions for a common civic cause and they get tight-fisted.

I have many friends who have been part of NGOs and done social work. While they do enjoy what they do, I often heard stories of frustration at not being to achieve quick results, and the inefficiency of government authorities. I also used to hear about the difficulty of fund-raising and what one needs to do to impress donors. In fact this is what put me off doing my bit and giving my time for social work.

Somehow today was different. When I reflected on the day’s events, I found it amazing to think that two regular citizens started off something this morning that involved so many people and created such dramatic change by evening. Practically everyone who worked had no such plans for the day and spontaneously joined in a community effort, totally voluntarily. These were strangers who did not know each other, but came together for a common cause. Surely there must be hundreds and thousands of more such people all over Bangalore, and India- yearning for change, but unsure how to start. Imagine if they all got together! I realize I was getting ahead of myself here, so I jotted down my thoughts and closed the diary!

I also decided to surprise V and X the next day. I really wanted to see what happened the next morning – so I fixed up an 8.30 am breakfast meeting with a friend at Indian Coffee House, and decided to come at 8 am and ‘inspect’ the spot.

I couldn’t wait!

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