630 am, the sun rises, and suddenly there is activity.
A gaunt man in a white shirt and dhoti emerges from a dilapidated colonial bungalow and sets up a tea stall outside the Coconut Grove restaurant, and soon there is a swarm of customers huddled together in the morning cold. Security guards, street sweepers, sanitation workers, newspaper delivery men suddenly materialize. V and X desperately need a chai.
They blend in, making small talk with this motley group – there is a certain warmth among the customers of a roadside tea-stall in the morning quiet, and V and X were clearly newcomers to this group that seemed to know each other very well. These are the invisibles – the people who really run the city. And whom nobody notices, or has time for, and also the people who are often accused of being the cause of the city’s problems.
V and X discovered, through some stimulating conversations over piping hot chai – in little plastic cups – that they have ALL the answers….they are the real street people – they live here, they work here, they see everything that happens. It’s just that nobody ever asks them for their opinions. They immediately understand V and X’s mission, as they are equally upset about the ugly Spot, and have suffered it silently for years. The good thing about garbage dumps is that they are universally hated – whatever your station in life. In fact, it is this universality that has encouraged V and X to take up this particular civic problem to solve – we Indians find it hard to agree on most things, but we all seem to agree that an open garbage dump is bad news!
V complains to Ramanna, the tea-seller, that they waited all night and nobody dumped any garbage! Ramanna, who has been here for 20 years, nodded his head and said – “just wait for 15 minutes and the action will begin.”
And the action begins
Almost everyone they speak to has been around for 15-20 years. The city has exploded from a small town of 5 million people to a global metropolis of 9 million, and Church Street has transformed from a by-lane of MG Road to the most expensive real estate in city centre – in all this growth, the constants are the street people – who operate below the radar, and have seen it all happen before their eyes.
It’s 7am. The Wipro security guard changes shifts. The new guard comes in and sweeps the parking lot right outside the office – there is a lot of litter here – plastic chai cups, fallen leaves, kathi roll packaging….he takes all the stuff and nonchalantly dumps it at the Spot. It is done with precision and minimum fuss, clearly a force of daily habit. He is clearly in a hurry – his job, after all, is to keep the parking area clean before his superiors arrive.
V zooms his camera onto the badge of the guard – this is crucial evidence. Suddenly a skinny boy in a housekeeping uniform bearing 5 huge bags emerges from the Times of India building and dumps them here, right next to the Wipro guard’s load. Almost on cue, three dogs arrive, rip apart the packets, and feast on its content. Clearly there is food in there – it is probably from the canteen. The dogs have been waiting for this – so this must again be a routine daily event. Soon, two ragpickers arrive, they squabble among themselves, pick some plastic packaging out of the mess the dogs have created and leave. Then an old lady in an orange saree and disheveled hair arrives, and literally fights with the dogs for scraps of paper and stuff that the earlier disheveled gents had left behind.
It was almost like a scene out of Discovery Channel – how animals home in on the kill site when the tiger is not looking. In a clear pecking order that is understood and accepted – the garbage recycler’s food chain. In a series of clearly choreographed actions, dumping and reclamation goes on at a furious pace, there are fights and arguments, it is quite heart-breaking to watch…. V and X are witnessing a daily scene that goes on, at daybreak, outside the view of policymakers, do-gooders and company officials, who try to solve the city’s problems from conference rooms and seminars.
In little over an hour, over 10 people have come here and dumped garbage, many others have rummaged about in it, and the entire place is now an ugly mess, extending some 20 feet onto the road and footpath. Man and animals have conspired to create so much ugliness. What’s going on here?
And then, at 915am, a welcome sight. The BBMP garbage truck arrives… three khaki-clad male workers hop off and spend 10 minutes cleaning up the mess, scooping all of it, with some basic implements and their bare hands, into the truck.
X makes notes. V films secretly. X thinks to himself — these guys are working hard but how do you clean a place that is uncleanable? They are smiling and are a jolly lot… jokes are traded, they gossip about an incident the previous day at the liquor shop where they all meet at the end of their day’s work. They chat with Ramanna, have a quick tea, and they’re off.
It’s 9.30 am and the place is clean again – almost as clean as V and X left it at midnight. “Clean,” of course, is a relative term… it’s now as clean as you can make a place, which has a broken footpath, a potholed road and several nooks and crannies full of garbage, with rats beneath. But the BBMP workers have done their job quickly and efficiently, and moved on to the next such spot near Empire Hotel, 200 feet away.
Could this be the system?
Suddenly it dawns on our sleepy duo… this open dump is the system! People dump here everyday because they know it gets cleared at 9.30 am every morning. They probably think they are being civic and responsible by not randomly throwing their garbage anywhere, but by neatly bagging it and dumping it in this corner. It’s not their fault that dogs and ragpickers come and tear their neatly packed garbage bags into shreds.
The truck leaves, and almost on cue – in the next one hour, several people (all women) visit the spot carrying bags of garbage, or buckets full of garbage, and create a huge mess again. They look like housekeepers who are cleaning up shops and offices as soon as they open at 9.30 am. It’s almost like the efforts of the BBMP garbage workers are totally in vain. The Spot had remained ‘clean’ for about 30 minutes.
The BBMP team might as well have not come to work that day. Could this really be happening? That ‘the system’ clears garbage at 930am, and that people start dumping here at 10am? And so garbage lies here all day, till it is cleared the next morning? Why is there no dustbin or dumpster here? Could this be the system – and that everyone is actually following the system? That the corner is dirty 24×7?
[V and X learn later that this spot is called a Black Spot, is tracked by the BBMP, and despite being illegal, is an official dumping point that is cleared everyday. Incredibly, because it has been tolerated for so long, it has become a normal accepted situation that everyone seems to live with. Crazy, but true.]
It’s 10am, and well-dressed suited-booted employees of Times of India and Wipro walk in to work. Some are going to write an editorial on a national issue that will affect millions. Some will code software programs that will run an American business process better. Some will get on to conference calls and manage global teams that are solving the problems of a European transport utility. And as they walk past this mess, they crinkle their noses, hoping against hope that the dengue mosquito isn’t lurking there, and hurry to the safety and security of their offices barely 200 feet away.
They have to step carefully, lest their clean shoes pick up some muck from the road outside. A few cars have already driven over the garbage and spread it far and wide. It is a windy day, and the lighter litter has been blown as far as the entrance to Wipro – 50 feet away. These employees have no clue why this dump persists, they just see it every morning and have got used to it, and all their guesses and surmises about the cause are wrong. And that is why they will never be able to solve problems like this – an armchair instant solution, however well-meaning, almost always gets it wrong. Till you get out there and understand exactly what’s going on, any assessment is flawed.
V and X smile. It was worth the wait. They have cracked the Whodunnit part of the puzzle. It took 12 hours of observation, but it was well worth it. They now know more about this Spot, and its dynamics, than any of the people they have met that week, and have proof in the form or photos and video.
‘Normal’ — but unacceptable!
They have figured that this is how the system works, this corner is the designated dump and far from being cheats, the people who dump here are actually following an efficient system – and as far as all the participants are concerned, this is normal. This is how it has always been – a sub-optimal broken system, but a system nevertheless. It’s like a leaking roof that you learn to live with. Or a malfunctioning traffic light. You do what everyone else does as there seem to be no alternatives. Immortalised by that quintessential Bangalore phrase – ‘Swalpa adjust maadi’ – ‘just adjust a little’ and get on with your life.
If this corner was shielded from view, nobody would even notice all this happening…in fact, that is what happens in many cities in India, and overseas, which use a system of well-managed dumpsters at street corners. Bangalore does not use that system and has banned bins and dumpsters, for reasons that V and X will soon discover.
This is the famous chalta-hai (‘anything goes’) attitude. Indians tolerate a lot of shoddiness in their public services, especially when it comes to filth – as long as it is a few feet away they can handle it, preferably in front of someone else’s home or office. And once it is accepted as ‘normal’, people tend to deal with it and get on with their lives.
V and X are not willing to accept this ‘normal’ situation. They are now going to attempt something crazy – they are going to Fix the Spot! But first, it’s back home for a good night’s sleep. Watching a garbage crime scene all night can be tiring!
They now have incriminating footage of several well-reputed organisations that are illegally dumping garbage on street corners. Should they go to the media? Should they post this information on social media and name and shame people? Should they report these violations to the Health Inspector and ask him to levy a fine? What is the best thing to do?
V and X do something quite unexpected.