Bengaluru is very quiet on a Sunday morning.
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The city centre area wakes up slowly, recovering from a busy Saturday night – even Ramanna opens his tea shop at eight. The mood is relaxed, and everyone is looking forward to a day of rest and relaxation. Many of the security guards, immigrants from the eastern reaches of India, normally work 2 shifts – or 16 hours on the trot, so Sunday morning is a big release. V and X shoot the breeze with this small group, whom they have now got to know fairly well. Hindi is the common language for this motley bunch, with the odd Kannada and Tamil phrase thrown in.
Finally the moment comes – the BBMP truck roars in at 9 am. This is the moment V and X have been waiting for.
The BBMP staff are a very hardworking lot and get no holidays. The street sweepers are expected to report 7 days a week at 7am- they get Wednesday and Sunday afternoons off. Really!
The day X discovered this fact, he had a new-found respect for the street sweeper. How can we expect our government sanitation workers to not have a weekly day off, he wondered. Many of these street sweepers live in a slum area, start their day at 5am, pack their own kids off to school, travel 1 hour by bus to report to city centre for a 7am start. No holidays? X just couldn’t digest that – it seemed so unfair. But then, he belonged to the urban middle-class and was used to a 5-day working week, where weekend holidays were an entitlement that was not to be questioned. This short stint on the streets had made X question many things about his privileged life.
V and X’s important mission is about to begin. This is really what they are here for today – they want to get some private time with the most important man in the system – Amir Husain, the garbage truck driver. In the hierarchy of sanitation workers, the truck driver occupies the highest perch. After all, he is the man who ‘takes it all away’. If he is late, or doesn’t show up, the entire collection system collapses and garbage remains uncollected on the streets. Several hundred garbage workers, private housekeepers and shop-owners act in a co-ordinated way between 7-11am to collect and dump the previous day’s garbage in Amir’s truck. Everyone keeps tabs on his arrival, his route is well-known to all, and if he were to take a diversion or come late panic buttons are pressed, cellphones are worked, and people scurry to intercept him.
Once his truck is full (and it is filled to bursting capacity everyday), he is on his own, supreme commander of all the garbage of Bangalore’s Central Business District (CBD), as he takes the long 90-minute drive to the landfill outside the city. All the others in the system finish work by 11am, and that’s when Amir’s work really begins. He is the big cheese, the top dog – he can make or break all the best laid plans of mice, men and crazy citizens like V and X. If he doesn’t report to work one day, the city centre looks a mess – it is as simple as that. There is no Plan B. And he lets that be known ever so often!
Amir Husain waves to them. He knows these two guys, although he is not really sure what they are upto. Anyone with a camera is suspected to be from the media and surely up to no good. As most media offices are in the area, government workers are always suspicious of people with cameras. If a picture of a garbage dump is published in the newspapers, they will be pulled up by their superiors. But something tells Amir that these guys are different. He has seen many NGOs in his long career, and something seems different about them – though he can’t pinpoint what it is.
“Amir chacha, chai?” – X ventures bravely.
He has seen Amir being very rough with people on the street, so the niceties of conversation are very important. Amir smiles, and slowly gets off his truck. It’s a Sunday, an easy day, he can surely chat with these guys – after all, they are treating him with respect. Maybe find out what they are really up to. He asks them to join him – I will get you chai at a better place, he offers, as he mutters expletives at Ramanna – who yells back in even more colourful street lingo. The light-hearted banter on the streets would make a schoolgirl blush.
V and X exchange a look – success! V thinks the use of ‘chacha’ (uncle) worked – X has a way with words that endears him to everyone – whatever their background or mother tongue. They walk behind Canara Bank to a little canteen – Amir is lord of all he surveys here, and they take their seats opposite him, after he does.
He gets to the point – What do you want? he asks gruffly.
X says – we want to ‘cancel the point’. Do you mind if we try?
The vocabulary of the street is important. A ‘point’ is a designated garbage pick-up point. At least 4 languages are spoken on the streets of Bangalore (Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and ‘Bangalore’ Hindi) and among those who do not speak English, certain English words have been absorbed and take on an important meaning – point, spot, lorry, cancel, inspection …and X has learnt that it is smart to use these key words. Amir’s job is to visit points in hisLorry and clear them.
Amir smiles, the smile of someone who has seen it all. He has been in this business for 30 years and is retiring in three. He takes on the tone of someone speaking to an immature nephew. “The system is rotten, the people are dirty – I don’t want any interference in my job, and want to retire peacefully. Please don’t draw attention to this, and please don’t give your photos to the newspapers. In other words – don’t waste your time. We have been doing this for 30 years, so let it be.”
X persists – but chacha, you have seen us for five days now, and we haven’t shown the pictures to anyone. See – look at the photos we have got of the ‘dirty public’. He hands Amir his camera and shows him pictures and videos of people dumping and catching them red-handed.
Amir is suddenly interested. He loves the feel of the camera. Nothing like a cool gadget, in this case a camera, to break the ice. He has never handled one before and here he was being given this toy to hold and play with. And for the first time, he gets to see the people who dump – that is of great interest to him. After all, it is he who clears their garbage everyday. He never really gets to see them – he would never walk into any office building –and there is no connect at all between the people who generate and dump garbage and the people who spends their entire working life taking it away. This class ‘divide’ is at the core of many of the city’s problems.
“Amir chacha, we are here to support you. Why should your team have to spend 15 minutes cleaning this point everyday? The public should follow the rules and make it convenient to hand over their garbage to your door-to-door pick-up staff. We are the public, and we will make the public follow the rules. We will go to their offices, to their top bosses and ensure they don’t dump here anymore.”
This was new – a group of citizens talking on behalf of him and the system, and saying they will take on the public. Are they serious?
Government workers always face public pressure for doing their jobs better, but who will put pressure on the public to keep their part of the bargain? The issue of garbage is a two-way street – in a door-to-door collection system, both dumper and cleaner have to partner to achieve a clean street. This suggestion of citizens supporting him was an alien concept, and somewhat unsettled Amir, though he did not show it. But it clearly touched a chord – this pair suddenly seemed to be making a lot of sense.
V and X are on a mission to build trust, to earn the friendship of the rank and file, the workers on the front lines of the garbage system. And they are doing it with sincerity, not by being condescending. So far, it’s going well. X has his fingers crossed while holding his chai cup. He was quite nervous at the start of the conversation, but it seems to be going well so far.
Amir ordered a second round of chai, and opened up – he has two daughters – one married, the other soon-to-be. He leaves home at 5am every day of the week, including Sundays. He stays at Varthur, till recently, part of the agricultural settlements east of Bangalore, and now totally taken over by the tech parks of Whitefield, and the housing boom that has invaded this rural hamlet. He needs to get to the Lorry Depot in Koramangala-Ejipura, 15 kilometres away by 6am, so he can clean the vehicle and reach his first pickup point on Brigade Road by 7am.
Thereafter he spends four hours on a fixed route (of barely 3 kilometres), and has 18 pickup points – each a dump like this one. 18 dumps in 3 kilometres in city centre! – what a shame, thinks X. But this is Amir’s assigned job, and he is measured on how well he cleans up these 18 points. V makes a mental note – there surely must be a way to reduce these 18 points to 10 or maybe 5 through better route planning, and eventually get it down to zero. He didn’t say anything, of course, but this idea stuck firmly in his mind.
V and X are learning nothing new from Amir as they already know all this – it takes a 30 minute walk any morning before 9am to identify these 18 spots – but they listen carefully. “This is a bad point, he says referring to the ‘Times of India point’ but nothing compared to Empire”. V and X nod in agreement. The conversation veers to a discussion on each point and its characteristics. The point opposite the popular Empire hotel, 200 feet away, has got to be the ugliest of all…Amir rattles off names of the other ‘points’ on his route – V and X nod intelligently.
He knows that they know what he is talking about – it is the first time he has spoken to members of the public who know everything about his route – clearly they have spent time looking around. He likes that. Government workers are rarely given any dignity, or called for discussions on ‘how to fix the city’. If they are called at all, it is to receive ‘wisdom’ from a senior consultant or NGO, who tells them what to do – they are never sincerely asked for their opinion, and never engaged in a serious discussion. After all, they are not paid to have an opinion, they are paid to do a job! V and X have this firm belief that most, if not all, the answers lie with the front-line staff – the trick is to ferret it out. To force them to think and talk about it to a neutral outsider. And Amir is now on a roll.
Amir chacha, has it always been like this? V asks. Amir explains patiently – Earlier there were circular concrete dustbins at street corners. Bangalore was a small town, the amount of garbage was very little – there was just 1 restaurant and a few offices on this street. People would come and dump their garbage here through the day and we would clear it the next morning. It wasn’t a great system, but it worked. There was much less plastic packaging and wastage in those days too.
“Then in 2000, the sudden growth began. SM Krishna became Chief Minister, and declared that Bangalore will be like Singapore, and set up a new garbage collection system. He banned the street dustbin, and set up a door-to-door garbage collection system – using pushcarts and small three-wheeler autos. It was made illegal to dump garbage on street corners, people had to retain their daily garbage at home till the pickup person came to their home to collect. It was a total change in approach – a radical change of the way things had been for decades. It’s a good system, an ambitious system, but people are bad.”
Old habits die hard. Rather than wait for collection, people come here and dump like they always used to – as this ‘point’ was the location of the old community dustbin. Though our workers go house-to-house everyday to collect garbage, the people are often not at home, or simply unwilling to be ready at the appointed time. His team’s job hasn’t changed at all. Earlier his team had to pickup garbage from all around the bin as well as what was in the bin – now all of it is on the ground!
It’s the same thing, he muttered. “This corner, and all 18 other spots, are still ‘bins’ in people’s minds – the fact that the physical bin is gone means nothing. People are used to walking around the corner and dumping at their convenience – they can’t be bothered waiting for the pickup person”.