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 cafĂ©. 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)

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