On a humid Sunday morning, at around 9.30 am, close to 30 people were struggling to clean a poster and spit ridden wall after drenching it with water. The stench of urine from a nearby public toilet was unbearable, and the only saviour was the face mask they were wearing.
With their feet in the muck and equipment that were the bare minimum – old rectangular plates, tattered wire brushes, some brooms and baskets to carry garbage- each of them could be seen utilizing all of their strength to scrape off the layers of posters on that shabby disfigured wall that was also home to a thick layer of dirt, fungus, cobwebs and loose edges of chips of old paint buried under layers of glued paper.
On the other corner, some workers of the Municipal Corporation were helping this team gather and move the garbage on to the vans and clearing grounds for the paint buckets to be brought in and the artwork to start on the walls. This morning, that had begun with digging, moving rocks, scraping walls and collecting garbage, drew to a close at its 5th hour with the gorgeous red and white Warli designs painted across it. The repulsive stretch was now turned into a beautiful sight. This wasn’t one unique Sunday though; it was the story of the lives of a group of dedicated people from Bhopal every single Sunday since the January of 2014.
By profession, Mrs Kalpana Kekre had been a caterer for years. But, motivated by consistent inspiration from the stories of the original garbage-miracle-workers from Bangalore – a group that called themselves “The Ugly Indians”, a Facebook group and a few other like-minded people, led her to be one of the first six to get out on the road and start cleaning the city. Dressed in her staple saree and maroon apron, the 54-year-old leader of the pack is usually seen among college going 20-year-olds.
From just six people, the team has come a long way. Today it has grown to over 200 active volunteers, most of whom were initially just onlookers. Mrs Kekre says that the most important reason for this growth has been consistency. In its 148th week now, the team has not missed even one task day. Ask this group of people who work or study throughout the week about forgoing their much-hyped “Sunday morning sleep” by arriving for clean ups as early as 6.30 am, and they would laugh it off and tell you how this has usually been the best part of their entire week.
Aman Mewara is one such volunteer – a 22-year-old studying civil engineering. He is one of the main artists of the group. His reason for joining came in an instant when he learnt that this was a citizens’ group. It appealed to him that each member came with just one major hope and motivation – that they would be able to pay back to the city they take so much from every day. The members of the team contribute 50 rupees per month to get the materials and equipment. Sometimes they get a little help with the paints from the Municipal Corporation and other equipment from well-wishers, but largely the citizen’s group is self-sustaining and takes no donations in the form of money from anywhere. For Mewara, it is an immense sense of pride to watch his art painted all over the city and to be a part of a group that comes with a noble purpose. His story has been an inspiration for friends and family and a ray of hope for people who previously refused to believe that India could ever be a cleaner country.
While on some days the group is quick to clean out dry waste, on other days, they find their shoes buried in layers of old rotting vegetables or layers of plastic for which they have to use shovels to work. With fondness, team-member Namdev narrates a similar story when his entire focus was on trying not to vomit during the clean-up because of the unbearable stench of the accumulated mixture of dry and wet waste. Today the same spot in Saket Nagar is a place of pride where people enjoy their walks, children love to play around, and people stop by for selfies in front of the wall paintings.
India is infamous for the heaps of garbage. On 2nd October 2014, the Prime Minister of the country proposed that every citizen should devote 100 hours in the year towards cleaning and this marked the commencement of the “Swachha Bharat” or Clean India Campaign.
Many people got on to the streets to mark an enthusiastic start to the initiative, and social media was flooded with pictures of everyone from celebrities to ministers, the rich as well as the poor, with brooms in their hands. For some, it was a one-time activity and for others just an erratic attempt that fizzled over time seeing almost no change in their surroundings. With a massive budget allotted for the same at the Centre and a tax introduced for the common man, many people mistakenly believed that it is the Government’s responsibility to make the change because the public was doing their part by paying for it.
This left only a few groups like this one in Bhopal to do the job consistently along with the workers of the Municipal Corporation. These people work with the belief that change is possible but not if they sit by and wait for it to come. They recognise the Government’s responsibility, but at the same time, know that the mess that 1.3 billion people create could only be cleaned up if citizens join hands in helping the much smaller Government bodies to carry out this massive work.
Another volunteer, Ajay Rahul, believes that the issue of India’s waste problem would never be solved unless individuals get down to managing their waste. And this work has to start from each home, and it will only be then that the Government would be able to deploy staff for further segregation of waste for recycling and disposal, thereby managing waste in the truest sense. At present, the most workforce is used to pick-up garbage from one place and dump it somewhere else.
This group in Bhopal calls itself – the I-Clean Spot-Fixing Team and they function around a sociology concept called the “broken window theory”. The theory postulates that when we see things that are already broken down, we feel at ease violating it further knowing that it would have no repercussions. This is why it is easy to find places in India where grounds dug for construction are soon filled with garbage, public properties such as bus stands and public sit-outs, toilets broken and defiled and garbage dumped not in the garbage bins but 500 meters away from them. The “nobody-cares” attitude is prevalent in India and so is that of externalising the blame on to the Government even if it’s the public who destroy public spaces. What the spot-fixing team consistently tries to do is not just clean the place, but also fix its surroundings and beautify it by painting so that people too begin to attach value to it and refrain from disfiguring and defiling such a restored place.
Even after the efforts, there are still some people who continue to spit and leave stains, throw garbage, stick unwanted posters on team’s hard work but fortunately such people are small in numbers. Most days, the group is showered with positive feedback. Their work is recognised and appreciated. Their best compliment is when the people join them, and there are also those who invite them to their locality for the next task. At these places, the team is relentless in involving people who reside in a new area of the clean up to join them so that they take more ownership in maintaining the place after the work is done.
The work of The Ugly Indian group and the I-Clean team has inspired the formation of many other teams like this in the country. Hyderabad, Pune, Nagpur, Rewa were a few cities which were also started such initiatives.
When Mr Ajay Kapoor told the group that he wanted to join and he was 66 years old, everyone seemed worried for his age but didn’t hesitate in inviting him over and telling him to contribute in whatever way he found comfortable. A year passed by and undeterred by the harsh sun; he continued to roll his paint brush on the walls.
One day, when he was painting the walls of the over-bridge near Polytechnic College in the city, after a while, he stopped, walked away and came back only 20 minutes later to narrate the story of a tea seller he had just met. Mr Kapoor had left the site looking for a public toilet when he enquired from the tea seller where the toilet was, the man laughed and asked which country Mr Kapoor was from, because according to him, in India for any man, the walls were just about enough. He then gave a piece of his mind to the tea –seller telling him that it was this mentality that takes us down and keeps us from being a better country, then he walked away and continued his search until he found a toilet. On returning, he narrated the story to the team, laughed at what had happened but reiterated that this mindset of the public must change, and this is what the team is trying to change through its actions.
Pictures and Article by: Shaan Suhas Kumar
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