The best weapon in the war against litter and public filth – the Gotcha! picture

Read how The Ugly Indian quashed denials of public littering with photographic evidence. The last and final part of Chapter 11, 'Steal Proofing', from The Ugly Indian book.

Part 1 of Chapter 11: Steal Proofing

Part 2 of Chapter 11: Installing garbage bins can be a design challenge for city planners!

Part 3 continues…

Before and after photo of a spotfix in Banaswadi. Pic: The Ugly Indian

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 five photos – one photo of “Before”, one photo of “After” and three 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 happens 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 and 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 and 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 every day, 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 every day, 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 every day, 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 6 pm 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 eight 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 and V seemed to be in a happy and talkative mood. Finally! 

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