Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Lessons for the Ugly Goan: Ugly Indians and their experiments in public hygiene

In a discussion located somewhere in cyberspace, collective attention was directed toward the efforts and website of a collective of citizens in Bangalore who have grouped themselves under the name of The Ugly Indian. Fed up with the filth and litter on the streets of Bangalore, this group took it upon itself to bring a halt to the spitting (of pan), the careless littering and dumping of garbage, public (male) urination, and a variety of other factors that make life in urban India an unnecessarily unpleasant experience.

At first glance, the website starts on a disturbing note. It is marked by a high level of the self-flagellation that marks so many Indians, from various socio-economic groups. It accepts that there is such a universal category as ‘Indian’ and then moves on to suggest that we Indians are incredibly accepting of filth, and that we can take any system and mess it up, whether in India, or outside India. As examples they suggest we take a look at “Streets in Indian-dominated suburbs overseas … Southall (London), Edison (New Jersey) and Little India (Singapore)” that “are good indicators of this lack of civic sense.” As a result therefore, this group suggests that we acknowledge to ourselves that we are all of us, “Ugly Indians”.

The 'Indian'?
Even though it turns out that this initial self-flagellation may in fact be a clever technique to draw the reader into the website and spur one to action, there is something terribly uncomfortable about what this framing reveals of the mind of the members of the group. Despite this discomfort however, what is truly interesting is that the members of this group are able to leave behind the useless, almost masturbatory, complaining that marks the Indian middle class when speaking of social ills, and make very interesting forays into the area that they identify as being a problem.

What is interesting about the initiatives of this group is that they do not suggest the usual routes of fines, nor ‘sensitization’ that are so often touted as solutions to the problem. Both these solutions, it should be pointed out, are particularly top-down methods, that share with the Gandhian method, a presumption that the some of us know the rules, but it is the others, necessarily lower down in the social scale, who need to be educated and if that doesn’t work, punished. Behold then, the methods of the Ugly Indians.

What they suggest is a communal approach, where we see ourselves as a group of people that must necessarily work together. Thus, rather than adopt the somewhat Gandhian martyr for the masses route, they agree that the action needs to start with one Ugly Indian, but that this action must necessarily involve the rest of the Ugly Indians on an equal footing. They point out, “this is about persuasion and smart design. It involves understanding why people were like that only, and not lecturing. It required building trust with the garbage collectors. With the shop-owners. With cleaning staff. With the recyclers.”

Their initiative worked they report, and like other successful experiments in waste management that have worked in India, it appears to have succeeded, not only because of the good will of elite citizens, but because it involved not just working with the normally ignored and neglected Municipality sanitation workers, but also the third wheel of the system, the recyclers of the informal sector.
Thus what seems to work is a method where we abandon the kind of command operations normally resorted to, where we direct others to do their job. Instead we need to engage with those whose job it is, without placing ourselves on the Gandhian high moral pedestal, where we make these public employees feel obliged for our engagement, and where the project is more about our sense of being wonderful, rather than in fact resolving the problem.

What also needs to be highlighted is the suggestion of this group; that the reason a number of initiatives do not work, is because these initiatives are informed by bad design. They stress that “Filth on footpaths is not random. It is part of a predictable daily cycle.” Figure out the way this cycle operates therefore, and you can design a solution that will break the rhythm of the cycle and resolve the problem. Thus in the case of a street filled with paan stains, they painted the wall white with a border of red at the bottom, placed pots with palm leaves and it seems as if their logic worked. The freshly painted white wall seemed to prevent people from spitting on something that looked like property that was cared for. Further, when the first paan-stain appeared, these Ugly Indians went and painted over it again. Continued interest in the project clearly then, is another element to a successful initiative. They also pointed out that one needs to recognize that pots could get stolen, so one places pots that no one would want to steal. The palms they suggest, was because the fronds ensured the spitter might get some of the spit on himself! Clearly then, meticulous attention to detail is another clever part of the initiative.

But it is not just culturally specific issues that the Ugly Indians deal with. They acknowledge that some kind of litter, like cigarette butts has absolutely no solution across the world, and that “No garbage clearing system is designed to handle this kind of litter.” Undeterred by this fact however, and convinced that every cigarette smoker is in fact a decent person, they set about designing a public receptacle for cigarette related waste, guided by the following rules “It should not catch fire. It should be at a convenient height and place. It should look like a bin. It should not get stolen. It should be easy to clean. It should work!” The result; a bin constructed from waste pipes, and more importantly, adopted by a local café. So effective was their design it turns out, that people would also use the bin as a spittoon, spitting directly into the bin, and not soiling the base! What most people who castigate spitters forget, is that paan chewing is integral to some parts of Indian society. Rather than get them to give it up therefore, it seem to make more sense to install more intelligently designed public spittoons all over the place.

The Ugly Indians set us on an interesting path for addressing problems in our urban spaces. Rather than the traditional Gandhian method, they suggest we work with the lower order public employees, who in many cases are delighted to be given importance and happy to help. Second, it requires a sustained level of public involvement, without expecting applause, recognizing we are merely acting in our best interest. Finally, the issue is about better design. As any designer would tell you, design begins with understanding the patterns of the intended user or client. Understand the pattern and you are able to fix the design challenge!

The stage, it appears, is now set for the Ugly Goans to come forward and take charge.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 15 Aug 2012)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Taxi gangs and Mafia of Goa? Placing issues in perspective

Since around May this year, there have been a number of reports on the manner in which the tourist-taxi system in Goa works. This attention has been ensured thanks to the reportedly aggressive behavior by the taxi-operators (taxistas), by their request to the government to handle the disputes between the taxi-operator associations in North and South Goa, and the demand by a variety of organizations to ensure that the operation of these taxis is regulated by meters in these taxis.

Given that the taxi system could, and must, operate as a viable supplement to the public transport system in our state, it would be in our best interest to ensure that this segment of the public transport system is well-regulated and accessible to all. Having said this however, it is also necessary to assert that one cannot ensure the fair and honest resolution of a problem by demonizing one party and laying all of the blame at their feet. This is exactly what seems to be happening however, via the various newspaper reports, where it is the taxistas alone who are being faulted as being exploitative, demanding ridiculously exorbitant charges, as well as violently aggressive towards their customers.

The aim of this column is to suggest a more sympathetic viewing of the taxistas, one that moves away from demonizing them, so that we could move toward a just resolution of the problem. As such, the first task would be to question whether the manner in which we view the taxistas is not in fact tinted by class-based prejudices. A recent article in The Goan allows us to place this possibility in context, given that it uses two highly inappropriate words, mafia and gangs, for the informal associations of the taxistas. These words demonstrate the manner in which these groups are not only being demonized but are effectively being criminalized. It is not surprising that these adjectives were being used for groups from South Goa given that there is a long Goan history of depicting the working class Saxticar as unthinking, hot-headed and violent. Every major Goan population has relied on the mass mobilization of Saxticars, but simultaneously has cast them as mobs without political savvy, setting in process this tendency to criminalize the Saxticar. This may also have to do with the kind of class-relations that marked colonial Salcette, given the large landholdings in that taluka, the unequal and oppressive relations between landlords and tenants, the tendency for the dominant class to see the genuine demands of the tenant class as illegitimate, and a situation where there was largely no option for the tenant but to acquiesce or revolt.

The article in The Goan, indicates that there are clashes between the various taxista groups in South Goa, where for example the taxistas in Margão, prevent taxistas from outside the city to operate, but while doing also locates a good reason for this behavior. This tabloid indicates that the State has thus far been remarkably absent in regulating the taxi-system, whether it is among legitimate taxi-operators, or private vehicles operating as taxis. In the absence of a fair and constant regulative presence therefore, it is little wonder that the field of taxistas has turned into the free-for-all that is being reported. Anecdotal observations further indicate that this free-for-all is also the result of the manner in which the State and elected representatives over time have, in the process of creating vote-banks, in fact created the problem by indiscriminately making available more cars for use as cabs, than the market is able to support. Given this situation of excess supply, it is little wonder that the taxistas are keen to ensure that they make as much money from their customers as they can.

Furthermore, while there have been many stories that present the customers as the victims of the predatory taxistas (as no doubt a good number may be), we must also place this plaint in perspective. As Jorge Fernandes, spokesperson for the South Goa Registered Tourist Taxi Association spokesperson is reported to have said “… without a formal meter, it’s the tourists that loot the local taxi operators and not the other way round as propagated by few vested interested people”. Bear in mind that it is not only the middle-class (whether Indian, or Goan) customers who are used to browbeating service providers into the cheapest possible deal, but also the tourists who visit Goa, who are famously known to have perfected skills of bargaining to ensure that services are offered at unsustainable rates.

What also bears comments, is that there is also something odious about the suggestions that are being made, and accepted by the taxista associations, of etiquette classes that the taxistas need toattend. It would be great if the taxistas were able to attend courses that would provide them a greater sense of the world, the nuances of the multiple social orders that they cater to, and the social skills required to do so. However, we shold ensure that such a program does not begin from the assumption that the taxistas in themselves are lacking. Such a course should not slip into one that urges taxi-drivers to wear shoes and socks, and perhaps prompting them to open doors for customers once they reach their destination. Such course content would emphatically NOT be about etiquette. It would be a class-based, Hollywood-fantasy inspired, desire of elitist segments of our society to convert service providers into servants. If the Goan taxista has a sense of self-worth that makes him (since it is invariably a him) feel that the customer should also acclimatize to their sensibilities then we should in fact recognize that it has been this sense of self-worth that has even from colonial times marked off the Goan as different and special in the subcontinent. Where providing a taxi service is a way out of many individuals and families from earlier feudal relationships, we cannot in the process of upgrading the industry, push these groups back into conditions of servitude

Finally, the demand for a meter fails to take into consideration that Goa’s spatial arrangement, being deceptively ‘urbanesque’, is unlike other urban locations that are marked by a high population density needing, and willing to pay for transportation. It is quite possible for a taxi to be hired from the airport (in South Goa), to take the customer to Tivim for example, which not only does not offer a high-density market, but is also many precious petrol-kilometers away from the taxistas eventual destination. Any regulatory system, whether meter or otherwise, will have to take into consideration these logistical issues and the complexities of the market that the taxistas operate in.

The suggestion this column makes, is not that relations between the taxistas and their customers is absent of manipulation and aggression, but that this behavior is in fact being overdramatized because of the inherent class biases that we hold. Further, this column suggests that the behavior that reportedly exists in the taxi service industry is the result of a system, deliberated created by the political elite of the State. This is a clear indication of that oft-used Sanskrit aphorism, Yatha Raja, tatha praja (as the ruler, so with the people). This system of looting the system while there is stuff to loot (what ecological economists have called the tragedy of the commons) is not peculiar to the taxistas, but is a marked feature of the entire system in Goa, from political elites, to mining and other aspects of the tourist industry. In such a case, why blame the taxistas alone, and why start with them, definitely small fry in the larger picture, first?

Clearly then, what is required is not merely the introduction of meters into taxis, but the presence of a genuine regulatory system, one that does not operate merely to punish, but to ensure fair and equal treatment for all involved. Thus we do need a greater presence of the State in this scenario, but it is not merely a punitive police State, but a justice-concerned regulatory State. This latter State, most of us will acknowledge has been more than absent from Goa for a good many years. Furthermore, it is important for us to take off our prejudiced blinkers, stem the criminalized perspective from which we view the taxistas, and recognize that while actively contributing to the mess that the taxi-system in Goa is, they are as much victims of the system, and it would be more appropriate to see their behavior as the result of the position that they have been cast into.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 8 Aug 2012)