Inspiration from the man who cleaned Surat!

Until we respect our sanitation workers and give them a better quality of life, we cannot expect them to clean our streets to the level we demand... Read the Ugly Indian Story!

The best insights on ugly Indian behaviour come from sanitation workers – they are at the receiving end every day of their working lives.

X had just been to Singapore. He was appalled at how filthy the Indian neighbourhood – Little India – was, somehow proving to him that even in a dictatorial enforcement-driven system like Singapore, the ugly Indian shows his true colours. He distinctly recalled seeing large dumpsters at street corners, even in Little India. Maybe he was missing something here – Bangalore wanted to be as clean as Singapore, but did not want to use dumpsters at street corners as Singapore did. He pencilled this down as a fact to check for later – something was not adding up here.

V and X know the importance of this one man, and this meeting. They were getting a bottom-up, inside-out view of the problem from the man who knew it all. The best way to understand a system is to speak to the front-line staff. Amir determines the fate of the cleanliness of Bangalore’s Central Business District (CBD). He can make or break their mission.

The city does not realize how much they owe to this man’s hard work. He works seven days a week, and is personally responsible to fix his lorry if it has a mechanical breakdown (which is often) as his employer (the BBMP) is in a financial mess and even routine repair and maintenance payments can take weeks or months to be reimbursed.  If V and X are able to win Amir’s trust and work with him, they can actually realize their bigger idea of fixing the CBD of one of India’s fastest growing cities.

X is busy taking notes – even though they are secretly recording the ‘interview’ on their mobile phone, it is important to show that notes are being taken. People always like to talk if their point of view is being noted down.

Amir goes on – earlier the waste was only organic – farmers would waylay him enroute to the landfill and beg for him to dump his truckload of garbage on their fields! He was a loved man, and his load was much in demand. Today it is all plastic and toxic, nobody wants it – he is a hated man. “I take all your public’s garbage and dump it, and I have to face the ire of villagers there. Why should I be targeted for policy mistakes made by my superiors?”

There is a specific purpose to making Amir talk. X and V are looking for cues on what really troubles him, what improvement in his daily working life he will really appreciate. Too often, well-meaning urban middle-class do-gooders think they know what the working class needs (gloves, better equipment and so on) and they get it so wrong.

Listening without being judgemental is an art, and X and V are good at that.

In the course of the conversation, they pick up one thread – about how long Amir has to wait in line at the landfill, competing with all the other trucks from other parts of the city, to unload. Often he waits for 2 to 3 hours in line, a frustrating end to a long day that began at 4 am.

Bangalore has three landfills outside the city where all its garbage is dumped. There is a growing unhappiness about this situation, especially among villages in the vicinity, and things are coming to a boil. People like Amir are in the direct line of fire from irate villagers who sometimes stone his vehicle, or make him wait long hours.

Any change in the system that helps Amir fill his truck faster in CBD, will help him reach the head of the landfill line faster and help him get home faster. This was it! Amir could not really be concerned about ‘big picture’ issues like landfills, waste processing, solid waste management and so on – his job was to drive a truck and move garbage, for which he was paid a salary, and if he could get home quicker, he’d be happy. He was simply a cog in a large system – a terrible system, an unfair system. However, it was not his brief or power to fix it – but if there was some way they could align his interests with their objective, they were on solid ground. This was it – could they help Amir leave CBD faster?

They asked about his grandchildren. He said – “I have a grand-daughter. She is asleep by the time I reach home! If I can get home by 7, I can spend some time with her.” This was it!

Could they give him a 30-minute advantage – so he could leave at 11am instead of 1130am. Not only would this actually help him, it would earn X and V Amir’s support. And when the real boss is on your side, and for the right reasons, change can happen. Bureaucrats and commissioners come and go, the permanent staff in a government system have the real power.

X and V come from the ‘tinkering’ school of thought – if you want real change, tinker from within and carry the important stakeholders along. Don’t force ideas top-down, don’t rock the boat, don’t be an activist. Slow, incremental change from within was their mantra. Also it was important to X and V that they approached Amir directly, on the strength of their own work as regular non-activist citizens – not because some senior person in the system, asked Amir to talk to them.

It is hard to over-emphasise how important this is – the moment you are seen as ‘some senior person’s friend or relative’, you get mock deference, and no respect. Though V and X had ‘contacts’ in the system they never dropped names, or used this network for access to government workers. That would be a recipe for failure, they contended.

X had timed how long it took Amir to clean the spot everyday – a good 10 minutes, sometimes 15. X and V made Amir an offer – on Monday, he would have to spend just 1 minute. He laughed, wished them luck. He made another comment – this is nothing. Just come with me to the landfill someday – you will never eat again after seeing that place. X and V gratefully accepted – what better way to get friendly with a sanitation worker than to accompany him on his daily round. On his invitation. Not as an inspector, or a consultant, or someone from an NGO. But simply as a friend.

It had been a 20-minute meeting – 20 minutes packed with worldly wisdom, and crucially trust-building. He waved to the cash counter, paid for their chai, waved goodbye and left. He paid! This was fascinating. X and V were soon to discover that they never had to pay for chai anywhere… and that a good indicator of respect from a government worker was if he paid for your chai. The balance of power is always on the side of the person buying chai – as a citizen trying to make a change at the street level, it is crucial to enter from the bottom, from a position of humility.

It had been a satisfying morning. The meeting with Amir had been a huge success, the spot was now clean, and X and V took guesses on whose garbage would arrive there that day. After all it was a holiday, and only the few houses from nearby Rest House Road would dump their garbage here today.

Final measurements and preparations were made. After all, the BIG DAY was approaching.

X and V had laid the groundwork – Monday morning was D-Day!

By spending the morning building trust with Amir, V and X were doing what they had learnt from the methods employed by the man who cleaned up Surat in 1996. Surat, one of India’s important port cities, had an attack of the plague in 1995, and its commissioner S R Rao famously cleaned up the city in 18 months, making it one of the country’s cleanest cities in record time. Of the many innovative things he did, one factor really stood out – he started by going to the slums where the sanitation workers lived and worked with them to improve their living conditions.

He believed that until we respect our sanitation workers and give them a better quality of life, we cannot expect them to clean our streets to the level we demand. Very often plans to fix the city focus on investments in technology and infrastructure – here was a man who invested his time and energy in his employees first. V and X were deeply inspired by this approach, and were on a mission to befriend every sanitation worker of Church Street, and work with them to improve the cleanliness of the street. And meeting the man at the top of the heap – Amir Hussain, Lorry Driver – was the ideal kind of start.

V made a small note in his diary: Before attempting a spotfix, don’t waste time taking permission from the authorities. That is top-down. First, earn respect and trust from the rank and file. That is inside-out.

While having a celebratory chai at Ramanna’s sidewalk café, they realized that their meeting had been noticed by the others. Suddenly, V and X had earned some legitimacy. They now needed to cash in on this quickly.

They made a quick shopping list and headed to the hardware store on Markham Road, next to St Patrick’s Church. Antony welcomed them to his store and asked – so which part of the city are you fixing tomorrow? The Times of India spot, they answered. He nodded knowingly – Big bad one. All the best!”

Game on!

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