Anything and everything on the Indian street can be stolen – especially if it offers a resale value, or is reusable. The crucial thing, is to make your design steal-proof. Part 1 (of 3) of Chapter 11 of The Ugly Indian book.

X and V are not finished yet. The basic rescue act is over and the initial impact has been made.

Their mission is to find a permanent solution to a decades-old problem, not just beautify a street corner for a feel-good photo-op. It would be a failure if the dump just shifted to the next orphan spot, to the next point of least resistance.

V & X are very conscious of this, and have worked out a plan.

For a start, they have made friends with all the security guards in the area. All commercial areas have security guards – who are really glorified gatekeepers. Bangalore is a safe city, but a 24×7 city, and so all companies, and many homes, hire 24×7 security to man the entrances.

Security is one of the largest employment generating sectors in India, and Bangalore is a huge source of such employment. There are apparently 200,000 security guards in the city, and almost half are from the north-eastern states. X & V have understood that these guards are the eyes and ears of the street, always friendly and willing to help. It is a huge idle human resource whose job is to essentially sit around in a uniform and do little else, especially on the night shift.

Often, people talk of installing video cameras to ‘catch’ garbage defaulters.  Nice idea, but hard to implement, especially in a public place – where there is a good chance the cameras will get stolen!  X & V prefer traditional human intelligence – enlist the help of a night-shift security guard, and you get all your answers in 24 hours.

They have also made friends with 3 of the Spot’s ‘neighbours’ – those within line of sight of the spot. Prabhu, the friendly manager at the KC Das sweets factory, Palani, the big-moustached admin manager at Canara Bank, and Jagannathan, the Branch Manager at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB), were all told about the SpotFix plan in advance.

Involving the Spot’s neighbours is a deliberate tactic. The more people you involve in the solution, the wider the ownership, and the better the chance of it sustaining. Anyone who contributes, however indirectly, to cleaning a street corner is unlikely to mess it up. And he is also likely to feel empowered to stop others from doing so.

Abu Dhabi Bank had provided them a place to store their tools, the construction site next door had provided sand, the KC Das manager offered 2 potted palms (for a week, and on a returnable basis), and the Canara Bank guard had offered an old bucket, a water source and some spare concrete blocks from their backyard. For each of these people, what they offered cost them no time, money or effort – yet they felt they participated and did their bit. Many of them had seen the team working that morning, but their job, or uniform, did not permit them to come and join. X & V had made it a point to take a little help from each of these people, even when it was not really required.

It is an important lesson in how to involve the community. It is easy to get this wrong, and well-meaning do-gooders often do. When asking for help for a common civic cause, it’s always better to ask for things that are easy to provide – never impose or harangue people, and definitely do not try to ‘educate’ them or lecture them to change their behaviour.

Importantly, make it clear that they do NOT have to give money or time – the two things people are very tightfisted about. Only help that comes voluntarily, or with a little nudge, is worth having.

Similarly, when dealing with employees at an office or shop, it’s always better to ask for help that the individual is authorized to give without compromising his job. A guard can always supply intelligence from where he sits (but not leave his desk), an office manager can always provide water (but not money or materials), a construction site manager can offer a little sand (but not cement); everyone has certain limits within which they are always happy to help – when asked politely. Understanding these limits is crucial. V & X had perfected this process, and were able to easily get support from several neighbours. We Indians are not good at taking the lead when it comes to fixing civic issues, but when another person takes that first step in taking on a common problem, we are great supporters and cheerleaders.

Many new stakeholders had participated in the fix that morning. The two Wipro guys who had dirtied their hands would surely tell their colleagues about it, and the smokers from Times of India who used this corner will spread the word in their office. All the employees of Abu Dhabi Bank had seen what was going on from their office window. This was all part of the plan.

It was now 2pm, and the team had just returned from lunch. The footpath was repaired, the spot was clean. But there was a big problem left to solve.

The area behind the fence and around the electrical transformer at the corner was still an ugly mess – it was full of debris and garbage, and as the fence was basically a large wire-mesh on a frame, the mess within was visible to the passerby. This fact diluted the impact of the morning’s work – the footpath and corner was clean, but the fenced area behind it looked a mess. Cleanliness is a 100% business – either the entire area looks neat or it does not. An 80% cleaning job is just not good enough.

This transformer zone had not been cleaned for years, in fact it was the local urinal. It did not matter that there were many skull signs everywhere and a big board that said Danger!! 11KV!! in 6 languages. Indian men will pee anywhere! And pee-points end up being permanent garbage dumps which nobody ever wants to go and clear – the stench carries several feet downwind.  As long as the fenced area looked ugly and neglected inside, this spot did not look clean. This had to be fixed too. But how?

It was too dangerous to go in and clean the place (it is a 11KV transformer after all), and it was a hard place to make neat. The ground was uneven, there were large pieces of broken concrete and stone lying about, and there were several thick wires carrying high-voltage electricity. The smart option was to create a visual barrier to the mess inside the fence so it was not visible from the street. The fence had to be made opaque, but with what?

X had spent time with a specialist designer whose focus was designing for ‘public spaces in India’. This involved thinking about things like dustbins, street furniture, signboards – features of public spaces that are considered normal in a civilized society, and strangely absent in most Indian cities.  The crucial thing, he had said, was to make your design Steal-proof. Anything and everything on the Indian street could be stolen – especially if it offered a resale value, or was reusable.

Metal doors of electricity junction boxes are routinely stolen, as are copper cables, dustbins, streetlight switches and most things one would take for granted on the streets in a developed country. The next time you walk on a Bangalore street look for the switch at the base of a street-light pole – most likely there are some loose wires sticking out as the switch has been stolen. For heaven’s sake don’t touch those wires!  They are live wires – often at handshaking distance from passersby – and the street lights are switched on by someone joining these wires every night! When V had discovered this one evening on Church Street, he was shocked – the two-wheeler parking attendant outside Nando’s Chicken was nonchalantly joining two protruding wires at the base of a streetlight on the footpath, creating a small spark and suddenly 4 street-lights got switched on. He discovered that this was a daily routine, not just on Church Street, but on most Bangalore streets. He got so angry, he employed a local electrician, invested Rs 200 and installed a simple plastic switchboard there. The switch lasted barely 3 days – stolen by thieves who obviously knew a thing or two about stealing switches from live electrical connections!

These are the realities of the Indian street that are often ignored by city planners and those who want a better city. Seemingly simple things that work overseas (like trash cans) don’t work well in India.

(To be continued…)


These are the realities of the Indian street that are often ignored by city planners and those who want a better city. Seemingly simple things that work overseas (like trash cans) don’t work well in India.

McDonald’s tried its best on Brigade Road – and installed some 30 large fibre-glass dustbins, costing about Rs 2,000 ($40) each, and branded with their Golden Arches logo. They lasted barely a few weeks.  Some were vandalized, some caught fire from tossed cigarette butts, many were stolen, and soon none were left.

Many other well-meaning attempts to create street furniture or public facilities end up with the same fate. It is a public design challenge that city planners haven’t given enough time and attention to.  X and V had some specific ideas on this subject drawing from their studies of public behaviour, but more on that later.

To make the fence look nice, and hide what was within, an option was to create an opaque screen with which the lower portion of the fence could be covered.  They figured they needed to cover about 18 inches of height from the ground to block the view to the mess within. Vandals had stolen the metal doorframe of this fence, and BESCOM had welded a makeshift door to allow its engineers access to the zone within. So, they needed to use a cheap material that was opaque, easy to install, and one that would not be stolen.

X had an idea – ‘Let’s use cheap colourful fibre-glass sheets to create a 18-inch high screen at the bottom of the fence. We will need about 30 feet of fibre glass sheets. But let’s first cut the fibre glass into strips 6 inches wide, and lineup 3 strips one above the other to make up the required 18-inch height’. V replied – ‘Fibre glass makes sense. It’s cheap, light and easy to install. But why such narrow strips? Why not just attach a 18-inch wide sheet that is readily available in a roll? Just buy 30ft and string it up. That would be quicker and more effective.’ X replied, with a glint in his eye – ‘To make it steal-proof !’

‘Narrow strips are unattractive to thieves as they are not reusable as a rain shelter. Also, fibre-glass has no resale value by weight or in cut pieces, only as a full sheet. Put a full sheet of 18-inch feet width and it would get stolen in a day; cut it into strips and make a few holes in them, and it is useless to others’. X smiled victoriously – he knew he had found the answer.

This invaluable insight had come to him from Muthu, the ragpicker – whom they had made friends with by now. V & X had made it a point to make friends with each and every stakeholder in this dump.  The crucial word here is ‘make friends’ – not ‘interview or survey’.  X had taken Muthu for a chai & cigarette and asked him a simple question – ‘What material fetches you nothing? What material will you not scavenge from a dump?’ He had carried some fibre glass strips to show him and test his idea. Muthu was emphatic – he had no use for these strips. Give him a full sheet and he could sell it to a slum-dweller to rainproof his home. But small strips, that too with holes in them, were absolutely useless.

Yessir! This was it!  Any design intervention using small fibre glass ‘strips’ would survive on the street! If Muthu did not want a material, nobody would. This was one of the many Eureka moments that V & X would experience on their mission. Want to find out what materials will not be stolen – why not ask the thief?! If you want to solve problems on the street, take design advice from those on the street.  

Fibre glass sheets are easily available in several colours. For Rs 200, X had bought 5 sheets of dark-green fibre glass, and he began cutting them into strips. Right there, on the footpath. Now, doing something like this in the middle of the street on a working day afternoon would surely attract attention, and that was precisely his purpose. Soon enough, two car drivers of Wipro walked up to see what was going on.

These car drivers of Wipro and Times of India hang around all day, on call, and are a constant feature of the area. They had seen the team working in the morning, but they hadn’t really come forward to help – the work seemed too messy, and they were in clean clothes. X was very keen to get them involved, and this was his clever tactic. He asked one of them if he could borrow a pliers, as he said he was not sure how to bend wire to fasten the fibre glass to the fence. The recruitment tactic worked – soon there were 3 drivers attaching fibre glass strips to the fence, all demonstrating their wire-bending techniques to X!

Like security guards, waiting car drivers are another huge idle resource on the street – and they are good with their hands, as they know how to tinker with a car engine. As long as they are near their cars and available on their cellphone, they are free to do whatever they want. And this group of drivers fancied working with bending wires, fibre glass strips and pliers! It was clean work, and required skill.

One of the drivers took charge of the project, a car’s toolkit suddenly appeared, 3 more drivers arrived, each trying to outdo the other, and V & X soon found they had nothing to do!  One of the drivers, Mohan, said ‘you have worked so hard all morning, now it’s our turn. This is our street too, we will also keep it clean’. X glanced at V – this was too good to be true. Over 15 people had now worked on this spot since the morning, and all had joined spontaneously and voluntarily.

The cement work on the footpath had dried by now, so V & X gave it a coat of paint. And when the drivers were done with the fibre glass work, they took the silver-grey paint that V & X had brought along and painted the fence. The whole operation took them barely an hour, the fence was looking really pretty now, the mess inside was not visible any longer, and they had clearly had a good time.  When one driver got a call from his boss in the middle of painting the fence, he left very reluctantly – this was so much fun!

It was important to X & V that the drivers took pride and ownership in the fence and vicinity. After all, the biggest beneficiaries of the SpotFix were the official car drivers of Wipro and Times of India. The already crowded lane had been parceled into 6 parking slots that were jealously guarded by them – every inch of road space is used in these parts. Bangalore does not charge parking fees in city centre, so there are no official parking attendants either – as a result, parking is literally a free-for-all combat activity where winner takes all. And this garbage Spot occupied part of the road, and resulted in the loss of a parking space, or at least half a car’s space. This is a big deal. These things matter to drivers, and are often the cause of arguments and fights.

The drivers sit around all day – on call. Waiting to take their boss to a meeting, or rush a media team to cover a story. They play cards to kill the time, and the presence of garbage, and the accompanying stench and flies, directly affects them. The Times Now broadcast van, the one that broadcasts Breaking News footage of important events in the city, often parks on top of the garbage. The poor driver has no choice, so he closes his window and sleeps inside his van; he really hates this spot, but is apparently quite powerless to do anything about it. Politicians may quiver in fear when interrogated on Times Now, but the Times Now broadcast van driver seemingly has no such powers! X noticed that, after the fibre glass job was done, he had parked his OB van exactly over the reclaimed street corner!

By 4pm the place had been totally transformed. And a whole lot of people had got involved. This was getting infectious!

Was this enough? Time to declare victory?  Not yet!  X & V had another plan up their sleeve.

X took some photos of the Spot, got them printed at another Spot neighbor, Tru-Images, a digital studio down the road, and created a small portfolio of 5 photos – 1 photo of “Before”, 1 photo of “After” and 3 photos of “During SpotFixing” (featuring the Wipro employees, the drivers, and Veliyamma).  The studio owner was very happy to see the photos, and offered a discount on the printing! Armed with these photos, the duo went off on their next important mission – to meet the company executives from whose offices garbage used to be dumped at the Spot.

They walked confidently into the Times of India office, and showed the photos to the receptionist. Can we meet the person in charge of your garbage, they requested? The guard had seen them working, and said so to the receptionist – he knew they meant business. Word spreads quickly when such spotfixing happen on the street.

Soon, someone senior from the Administration Department came along, and she saw these two guys in dirty clothes carrying some photos. They showed her the picture of Times of India canteen employees dumping their garbage on the street. They pointed to the spot from the window (you can get a clear view of the spot from their office), and indicated that they had personally cleaned it up.

She got the message. Nothing like photos and paint-splattered clothes to make a point. Quick calls were made, the head of housekeeping was summoned, his denials were quashed with the photographic evidence and an assurance was given that it would not happen again. Needless to say, he blamed an outsourced contractor who came in at night to do housekeeping.

The same scene was enacted, in quick succession, at 7 other offices and stores (ADCB, Wipro, Canara Bank, Corporation Bank, Hum India, GK Vale and KaatiZone). In most cases, the management was totally disconnected from those who disposed of their garbage, and this was probably the first time they had even thought of where exactly their garbage went after it left their premises. All of them agreed immediately that this was not acceptable and they would find a way to ensure it did not happen again. Some were worried these photos would find their way to the press, or their superiors, and they were assured that this would not happen. The gotcha! photograph is the best weapon in the war against litter and public filth.

Companies and stores take their reputation very seriously, and often all it takes is an incriminating photo to get them to act.  It is important to give them a chance to fix things on their own, and not get activist about it and post the photos online or go to the press – that is counter-productive. The individuals at these companies are regular citizens too – they understand the ground realities, and their personal limitations. Large organisations also take time to respond, there are procedures and protocols involved.  Give them a chance, and some time, and they can be heroes too. While solving a common problem, it is important not to create enemies.

The meetings had gone well, and it seemed likely that these 8 dumpers would stop doing so, and use the official systems. But this was not enough.

There were several other people who dumped here, and some of them were small tea-stall vendors, who had no other option but to dump here. They were illegal vendors and not part of the formal garbage system – so they really had no alternatives. For them, V & X adopted a very different strategy.

The vendors’ biggest fear is the police, whom they pay off to operate on the streets. They live on the edge – they can get hauled up anytime and survive at the mercy of the local police and politician. X and V played on this insecurity. They gave each of the vendors a packet of garbage bags to collect their daily garbage and devised a simple collection and storage system for them – that ensured they never needed to dump here and connected them directly to Amir’s pickup lorry in the morning.

It costs money to buy garbage bags (Rs 3 for each bag) and tea-stall vendors don’t take the trouble and effort to make such investments – it’s easier to just dump it all in a corner at night. But if you provide them with garbage bags and tell them where to keep it at night, they will listen to you.  At least, this was V’s theory.

Interestingly, the vendors were very enthusiastic about helping V & X and were quick to suggest ways in which their garbage did not hit this corner – it’s just that nobody had talked to them about this before! When people who are totally ignored by the system are engaged and involved as stakeholders and problem solvers, they always respond positively.

Also, it helped that they had seen the team working in the muck – the best, and probably only, way to earn respect from the street is to go out there and work with your hands.  Too often, do-gooders try to ‘educate’ street vendors and create ‘awareness programs’ about waste management, and get frustrated that these ‘uneducated people’ just do not understand. V felt that this was a condescending approach and doomed to fail– better to just go out there, work with your hands, and provide some real solutions that make business sense to the vendors.

Vendors, after all, are street-smart businessmen who survive on wafer-thin margins, and for whom every rupee really counts. They know what is best for them, and they couldn’t really care about big-picture issues like pollution, unscientific landfills, and the impact their actions have on the environment.

One of the vendors they befriend in this process is Subbamma, who has been selling bananas and tea from a temporary stall outside the Times of India office for the past 20 years.  She is a good friend of Veliyamma, she had seen her painting the footpath, and asked how she could be of help. V had found that the elderly women who run tea-stalls and sweep the streets are always the most friendly and helpful!

V knew that she was here every morning from 9am onwards – which was ideal for his plan. He immediately offered her a small responsibility – could she sweep the brand new corner everyday after Amir and his team left? Could she make sure it looks clean every morning – as clean as it is right now? ‘Yes’, she replied – ‘that is the least I can do for you’. It’s humbling when people respond like this.  V said thanks, and he would like to pay her for this job – Rs 20 per day. She initially refused payment, but X was firm – ‘I want you to do this work and I will pay you for it. I will get the money back from these company people’.  He insisted on paying her Rs 100 in advance for the week ahead. It was a direct approach, but it worked. She promised to clean the place at 9am the next day. He knew this amount meant a lot to her.

Rs 20 per day is a decent sum of money (works out to Rs 600/month) for 5 minutes of work done everyday, and there are several people on the street who would seek such assured income. Interestingly, this is exactly the daily hafta (pay-off) most vendors pay to the local constable to preserve their illegal business – and so the economic argument was very compelling to Subbamma – this fee covered her daily ‘rentals’. And for V, this was a ridiculously low amount to pay to get direct control over the maintenance of a street corner; it was less than the price of a coffee at Koshy’s – and he had at least 2 cups per day. He made a mental note to cut down on 1 cup of coffee everyday, and create an honest income for a deserving person instead.

V was very hard-nosed about this – he believed that small amounts of money worked, if used sensibly and in the right way. If it was someone’s responsibility to keep the spot clean everyday, and she was paid for that, it would remain clean. And as a citizen, he believed he had a right to get a street corner cleaned to his specifications if he was prepared to pay for it. That’s all there was to it. It was no different than paying taxes to the city – the only difference was that here he was paying someone directly to clean a street corner of his choice. The BBMP sweeper did her job at 8am – he was paying for a second shift, an additional clean-up. If you can pay a person to clean your home, you should be able to pay a person to clean the street anywhere in the city – the logic to V was compelling. He could never understand why some of his friends made such a big deal arguing against this principle – they insisted that they should restrict themselves to paying their taxes, and the government should ensure a clean street.

It was getting close to 6pm. It had been a great day. The place was clean, all the dumpers had been met and their problems addressed, and to top it off, Subbamma had been hired.

What would happen the next day? Would anyone come to dump here? Would all this effort pay off? There was only one way to know – and that was to come and see. They began packing up their tools and taking some final photos.

It was 6pm and I almost sprinted to the Spot, anxious to see what had ensued all afternoon. And sure enough, our crazies were there – X was adjusting a large flowerpot into the corner and V was taking photos in the fading light. They seemed to have recruited several others, including the driver of the Times Now broadcast van, who had parked right next to the Spot  – on reclaimed street space! I counted at least 8 people milling about on the corner – some working, some clicking pictures – but all were clearly involved in what was going on.

‘Hi guys!’ I shouted cheerily. ‘This looks fantastic!’. They said they were almost done, and pointed proudly to the transformed fence. ‘Thank the drivers, not us. They were the ones who did this!’ One of the drivers beamed and asked me to take his picture posing at the site, on his mobile phone.

X said ‘We’re soon going to Indian Coffee House for some food – we need some energy! Come along, we will tell you what happened’.

X had just asked the drivers to pose for a group photo on the spot. They cheered loudly while they posed. It’s amazing what a camera can do to a group– it transforms people. Everyone loves to be photographed. This photo session was creating quite a scene, and several passersby stopped to take a look. This was fantastic – the community was finally taking pride in their street. They were all standing proudly on a spot that was impossible to stand on barely 12 hours earlier.

X and V made it a point not to be part of any group photo. Neither did they share their name and number with anyone they met. And they took no names or numbers either.

As we walked towards the Indian Coffee House, X remarked – ‘What a day! I’m trying to find the right word to describe what happened today. It’s amazing how people just joined in voluntarily – seems like there are a huge number of people willing to make a change – they just need one or two crazy people to show the way. To take the lead.  What’s the right word to describe such a person?’

A catalyst? I suggested.

‘That’s right, we are the catalysts’. X gave me a high-five. ‘We are the street catalysts! What a lovely description – thanks!’

I knew I had contributed something meaningful. I suddenly felt I belonged.

Pleased at this simple description of their role, X waved to the proprietor of Coffee House, and said – ‘The usual, sir. Coffee and scrambled-eggs on toast for everyone.

I was dying to hear the inside story of what had happened that afternoon. Also, I had been troubled by some of the things my colleague had asked me – Who paid for all this? Why should the public do the work of a civic agency? Was this legal? Where exactly will the people dump garbage now? I was determined to find out all these things, and X & V seemed to be in a happy and talkative mood. Finally!



  1. Radhika Raj Narayan says:

    Great initiative and useful advice for us, volunteers at CMCA (Childrens Movement for Civic Awareness) – the pointers on getting help are indeed valuable for us as well as for the school children who are civic club members and are trying to be active citizens.

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