Of broken windows and orphan spots

Analyse a dump! Diagnose what was wrong? What was wrong with these guys – seems like they were the ones who needed their heads analysed and diagnosed! Chapter 9 from The Ugly Indian story.


I had seen V & X for the first time on Thursday, the day before their ‘hit’. I was walking down Church Street after a coffee at Koshy’s and was heading towards Blossom Books, when I saw these two guys photographing this ugly garbage pile outside the Times of India building.

One of them was literally standing in the pile and holding up a shopping bag he had extricated from the dump, and the other was photographing it.  I did look at them but did not stop – assuming they were from the media; the city’s garbage woes are a routine story in the papers. The streets right outside their offices are always good convenient material for journalists on a deadline. I work nearby and walk in this area a lot, and saw them again on Sunday morning taking photos of the same dump. This time I went up to them and asked them what they were up to.

‘We are taking photos of this dump’ – one of them said, quite self-evidently.

‘Yes, I can see that. But why?’ I persisted.

They said they wanted to get rid of this dump, and asked if I could help them with some information, as I seemed to be a regular walker on that street.

‘Sure, I offered, what do you want to know?’ If anyone is trying to clean up the streets in my city, I will surely support them.

One of them pointed to the Spot and asked me to describe what was going on here. To me it was just one horrible stinking mess, and I didn’t even feel like looking at it, or going anywhere near it. I always made it a point to walk on the opposite side of the road while passing this stretch of Church Street. But he insisted that I look carefully and ‘analyse’ it, and ‘diagnose’ what was wrong. Analyze a dump! Diagnose what was wrong?

What was wrong with these guys – seems like they were the ones who needed their heads analyzed and diagnosed! But I decided to humour them – they seemed decent enough, and looked sincere. And I had some time to spare. If answering their questions helped them, I would gladly do so.

I went up to the dump and looked closely. I saw a maze of wires, a broken fence, some big black cables, a big hole in the ground, stones lying about, lots and lots of garbage – and an overpowering stench. And a massive electrical thingy behind the fence, the kind of ugly grey box one sees at street corners. Gosh, was that a rat? I kept looking, and to my utter disbelief, there was an entire family of rats walking about quite nonchalantly in the muck, nibbling away. Ugh – rats give me the shivers. I normally hurry along covering my nose, so standing so close to this dump for so long wasn’t fun. X could see my discomfiture, and motioned that we cross the road and have our conversation from a safe distance.

He asked – “Do you want to know why this dump is here? “
Well, to be honest, this wasn’t on my list of things to care about today, or probably ever, as I have enough on my plate already, but no harm in hearing him out. I nodded.

He went on – “Have you heard of the Broken Windows Theory?”  I had not.

He continued – “In the US, broken windows in a building are a sign that it is neglected, and probably abandoned. They found that if a house or building had broken windows, soon more windows would get broken by vandals, who would eventually break in, occupy the premises and start illegal activities there. When the windows were fixed soon after they were broken, it was found that this trend stopped and did not attract vandals and criminal activity, suggesting that the street sends out welcoming signals to vandals. If these signals are fixed or repaired early, the vandals go elsewhere. In other words, if a street has any urban disorder, or ugliness, it attracts more disorder. And if this disorder is repaired in time, it can save the street. This theory, popularly called the Broken Windows Theory, is now widely used in criminology and neighbourhood policing”.

This was interesting.  But where was this heading? X went on, sensing that he had my attention.

“This theory can also been applied to public littering on a street in Bangalore.  First one person litters at a particular spot, seeing this, the next person is encouraged to litter right there, and soon litter accumulates and littering becomes acceptable behaviour at that spot. Slowly but surely, the entire place becomes a mess. Allowing a place to look littered encourages more littering.  This is what happens round the world, and also at this Spot. I have my own little theory for Bangalore – do you want to hear it?”

I nodded. I was getting a short lesson in pop sociology from a total stranger I had just met at a garbage dump. There are all kinds of crazies on Bangalore’s streets – but these guys seemed somewhat more articulate and sensible than a few others I have encountered.

“I call it the Orphan Spot Theory. On each street there are corners, or Spots, that are orphans. Nobody owns them, nobody cares for them, and everyone abuses them without fear of rebuke. Either these are public places (owned by the government) or they are unoccupied corners or small strips of land ‘between’ shops that belong to nobody or are under legal dispute – hence unused. And since there is nobody to object, and the spot has no voice of its own (like an orphan), it gets abused, and everyone around soon gets used to the abuse, and treats that as normal and acceptable behaviour”.

He pointed to the Times of India Spot – “This is a classic Orphan Spot. That corner belongs to nobody, and is not directly in front of any shop or office. So there is nobody around to object if you litter here. And that seems to be a licence for everyone to mess it up. We call this the Mother of all Dumps – there are 11 more such dumps on Church Street & Brigade Road!”

Ouch! I winced. 11 more dumps? These guys seemed to have studied this garbage business quite closely.

“So let me ask you” X continued,” you have this coffee cup in your hand, where will you throw it when you are done? Please answer honestly.”

I cringed. I had actually thrown my coffee cup at this very spot a few times. There are no dustbins on Church Street and this place looked like a garbage dump anyway. I pointed to the Spot shamefacedly.

X smiled triumphantly –‘See? This is why we wanted to really speak to you – you had a cup in your hand, so you were a potential ‘culprit’! We have been tracking people who dump here, and you come under the category of ‘Pedestrian Litter’.

‘And we have a theory on why you would have littered’. These guys have theories for everything, it appears !

‘We are all ugly Indians, and we simply follow the herd. If everyone else breaks the law, we think it is fine to do so. If the vehicle in front of you drives through a red light, somehow it is OK for you to do the same. This is the Broken Windows Theory in action, India-style.  This spot is a neglected part of the street, and everyone abuses it. As it always looks dirty, you would not have felt guilty adding your cup to it’. He said it in a very matter-of-fact way, not as an accusation.

‘Now, here’s my next question. I don’t mean to embarrass you, but please answer honestly. If there is a guy who wants to take a pee, where would he go on this street?’

Now, this was an awkward question to ask a woman – but X asked anyway. As all women know, this is probably the most disgusting behaviour in men, and not something they can think rationally about. But then, I have had male friends who casually pee on the street so I can’t say that I don’t understand this behaviour, even among educated affluent men who frankly, should know better.

X elaborated – “Think like a guy who has no shame and is desperate to pee, and finds nothing wrong in peeing in public as that is how he was brought up. Let’s not worry about whether it is right or wrong or disgusting. Just tell me which spot you think he would choose to use?”

I looked around the street, and saw lots of shops and cafes and people walking about – and again pointed to the Spot – it seemed to be the place one would go, if one really had to go. For one, it was so filthy and smelly everyone kept away from it. It was also in a corner, and – not that it matters to guys who are so shameless – there was some sort of privacy, as there was no shop or office right behind it.

X beamed. I was clearly giving the right answers!
He said that he had lots of questions and theories on male urination in public places but decided this was not the time to share them. Just as well, I thought. It is an issue that troubles me immensely, but it seemed weird talking about it with two guys I had just encountered on the street.

He changed tack. One last question – “If someone tidied up this place and made this corner beautiful, where would you throw your coffee cup?” Hmm, I hadn’t really thought about it, but I would probably carry it with me till the next dump I saw – the one next to Blossom Books some 100 feet away. I was being honest. I have faced this problem before. I like to walk with my coffee in hand. And I have noticed that there are no dustbins on Church Street, and that there are several open garbage dumps along the street where it is quite easy to get rid of a coffee cup, without any guilt. Come to think of it, there are no dustbins on the streets of Bangalore – I guess I had not really thought about this at all.

I was warming up to these guys now. I had studied sociology and psychology in college but never really liked the way these subjects were taught – but there was something in this conversation that reminded me of stuff I had once studied.

X asked – “Are you walking this way tomorrow morning? Why don’t you drop by around 11am.  We have planned a small experiment, and want you to see it.” I had a meeting at 2pm and could surely come out for an early lunch break.  I agreed. They asked me to take a photo of the Spot before I left.

What – a photo of the dump? This was crazy – but I was talked into taking a photo of a garbage dump! From several angles, including a close-up of the rat family!

I had a friend waiting for me at the Matteo Café at the end of Church Street and I was getting late. It would be fun showing her these photos, especially the rats – who actually looked somewhat cute. I said – “Now I have a question for you. What are your names, where do you work?” X smiled – “We are Bangalore citizens. We have not asked you your name, and we won’t tell you ours. Let’s keep it that way”. How weird!

As I walked towards my coffee rendezvous, my mind was racing. There was something about these guys and their line of questioning that got me thinking. It was quite obvious actually- if the place looked clean and maintained, and had dustbins, we would keep it clean. But when the streets look a mess, and there are no dustbins or urinals around, what are people supposed to do? As I kept the used coffee cup in my bag I wondered, how will my good civic behaviour make any difference to this street?

As I walked to Matteo, I made a mental note of ‘orphan spots’ on the way. I counted seven, and just as X had said, they were all in neglected corners of the street. In fact, there was always a grey electrical box-with-wires at these spots. And, from the corner of my eye, I noticed two men peeing on the wall opposite Shelton Grand Hotel – and again, as X had predicted, they were peeing behind a parked car, and under the privacy of some tree branches, on a wall that seemed a long Orphan Wall some 100 feet long!

This was strangely exciting. I was seeing things on Church Street that I had not noticed before, even though I walk here everyday. I was almost waiting for Monday 11am. Who were these guys? Why did they want to remain anonymous? What was this experiment they were planning at 11am? I was going to read about this Broken Windows Theory online.

I also made a plan to surprise them and land up at 10am instead.
I had no idea what lay in store for me the next day.


Related Articles

Inspiration from the man who cleaned Surat!
Why doesn’t Bengaluru have garbage bins?
Influencing behaviour by changing the surrounding

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