Chapter 12: Rats!

Can you show me the photo of the rat, V asked.  Bangalore is a great city for rats, he remarked – it’s almost like the city is designed for them!

It didn’t seem the best topic for conversation in a restaurant, but by now I had got quite immune to such stuff. Once you work in muck, talking about it is easy.

X went on – The place we fixed is Rat Heaven. Let me tell you why.

He took out a pencil and started sketching.

Do you have any idea what lies beneath the footpath?

He began explaining. Here’s the drain to take away rain water – it’s called a storm water drain, or commonly known as the gutter. This is not the sewage or drinking water line. Those are separate pipes (at least they are supposed to be!), and they run parallel to this drain, and at times they intersect.

Then we have the underground power lines carrying high voltage electricity criss-crossing this path. All these pipes and cables snake under the road and footpath, and they are great fun for rats to slither on, and swim along. These pipes and cables follow the roads, and the problem arises when there are junctions or road intersections.

This Spot happens to be a major junction (where Church Street and Rest House Road intersect)– and the Electricity people have their big Junction Box/transformer located at this junction. So while this is a great playzone for rats, there is only one problem – there is no food! Luckily for the rats, that problem is solved by the BBMP (the city’s garbage collection authority).

I had learnt about seeing ‘the other point of view’ to better understand a problem, but seeing the city’s civic issues from the perspective of a rat was intriguing, to say the least. The BBMP solved the rat’s food problem – hilarious!

X went on – BBMP, the garbage collection authority has made this corner an unofficial garbage pickup point. It used to be  dustbin point earlier – now the dustbin is gone, but the ‘point’ remains.  The city planners, in their wisdom, have left no place for transit garbage storage while banning dustbins and dumpsters, so the garbage folks seek orphan spots like this, where they can dump garbage and their Lorry can park to pick it up.  It’s not really the fault of the garbage workers, they have no other option. This is not new in Bangalore – in fact it is the norm – almost every major street corner has a transformer and it doubles up as an (illegal) garbage dump.  If we ever meet with the authorities at the electricity authority BESCOM, we will tell them that they are Bangalore’s dustbin providers in addition to electricity providers – seeing how their assets are blatantly abused by the BBMP as a garbage transit storage point. What a crazy city – where we use high-voltage transformers as dustbins, and it is considered normal!

So, as far as the rats are concerned, the rules are simple. If they follow the power lines, they get the food. And if they get really hungry, they gnaw on the power cables and cause outages. Sometimes they gnaw too hard and reach the real Rat Heaven in the sky, but we suspect baby rats are trained not to gnaw too deep!

Ugh! Ghastly…..I exclaim. X was enjoying this…

He went on – As this is a junction point, the water & sewerage utilities have their manholes here too. So the rats get a choice of fresh water or sewage water to wash down their food! And after the telecom revolution, a new animal entered this mix – the telecom companies with their optical fibre cables.  They have wired up the city by somehow squeezing their cables in this underground mess. In short – all agencies who provide basic services have their critical assets at this corner – most of which lie under the road or footpath.

I was stunned. But wait a minute – so is it possible that my broadband cable that brings my internet home is going through my sewage pipe?

Yes, smiles X.

Well that is probably better than if it went through my drinking water, I thought.

You don’t want to know what goes on down there, X continued. But unfortunately what goes on down there directly affects us up here.

And this is why. At any given time, any of these agencies is going down there to repair or replace something, and they often leave the job unfinished. They have no idea what the other cables and pipes are, and often end up damaging the others’ pipes unwittingly. So if the sewage guy has gone down there to unclog a blocked pipe you may well lose your broadband connection. Or the other way around. Needless to say these agencies don’t like each other, and there are whispers that they sabotage each others’ assets too! When it comes to telecom, you have competing providers using the same space, and so all kinds of things go on underground!

X ended triumphantly:  If you had to pinpoint one single problem that was the root cause of most of the city’s problems, it was this – the agencies that dug up the road and the agencies who had to repair the road and footpath never co-ordinated their activities and are always blaming the other- and the road remains dug up for months or years.

This was cool, I thought – X was able to focus the cause of our civic issues down to one thing. This seemed to be a logical way of approaching a problem – trying to pinpoint the crucial underlying issue.

X added – The long-term solution, of course, is to have ducts beneath the footpath to carry cables, and rejig the entire sewage and drain system to ensure the road never needs to be dug up to access these underground cables and channels. But those are big, expensive infrastructure changes – and god alone knows when that will happen. Till that happens, some sort of solution needs to be found.

V chipped in – Now let me tell you one more thing. The sewage lines here are really small – designed for the 1940s when there were a few homes and a couple of restaurants. Now there are hundreds of homes, businesses and restaurants – but we still have the same British-era sewage lines! It is incredible. No wonder the sewage line gets choked everyday – with forks, knives, food all kinds of stuff. So you call these guys to clean it and unclog it, else there is a backflow and….ok never mind! Just come here at lunch time on a working day and you will see what I mean.

At least V seemed a bit sensitive about not discussing raw sewage over a meal!

This whole business seems like a racket, V continued. These guys get paid handsomely everyday to unclog sewers, and there seems to be no incentive to lay a bigger sewage line. Otherwise it is hard to explain why this basic infrastructure has not been fixed.

In our Times of India Spot, the fact that the road was dug up for cabling and a manhole was unclogged exactly where the garbage point was, led to a heady cocktail – a dug up road, debris lying about, and garbage everywhere. (Reader discretion advised to read further).

Garbage had crept into the craters in the road, rats had burrowed a maze of tunnels beneath, rainwater had collected in patches, and the place was an unholy stinking mess of rotting food. To make matters worse, the sewerage system in Church Street is perennially clogged, and the hardworking guys who you call for emergency unclogging do their job (unclog the lines) and then throw the raw sewage on the road (clearing this is not their job). Disgusting, but true.  If the sewage pipe is unclogged at 12 noon, the sewage lies on the road til the next morning, when BBMP (yes, Amir and his team), are ‘supposed’ to clear it- with their bare hands.

It is fairly common to see piles of sewage lying in the middle of Church Street, within sniffing distance of the several restaurants! Within a few hours, this raw sewage dissipates on the road, is trampled upon by unsuspecting pedestrians, is scooped by car tyres, and soon blends into the streetscape. The stench can carry for over 50 feet down-wind – not great on a street that prides itself as the Food street of the city with loads of eateries.  This is a great environment for wildlife, particularly rats, to breed, who feed on the garbage, gnaw on the electrical wires and eventually cause a short-circuit and minor explosion and black-out.  Very often, electricity black-outs are solved by removing the charred carcass of a rat from the wires.  If all this sounds disgusting and repulsive, don’t forget that all this is happening on a major footpath in Bangalore’s city centre, which well, no longer exists now as it has been dissected and destroyed. This gruesome feral scene, which could provide high shock-value pictures to any photojournalist covering the dark side of India’s urban growth, is being played out in full view of everyone on a main road – but nobody is watching. They are busy walking by and looking away; pedestrians are forced to walk on the narrow road, side-stepping the mess. The final result is that what is a narrow road to begin with is now choked with vehicles, pedestrians, and sundry dogs trying to get at the garbage.

Hungry stray dogs that survive on open garbage cause several other issues – including sometimes attacking small children who pass by. One of Bangalore’s city commissioners lost his job after a spate of dog-bite cases involving small children. One problem leads to another – the cascading effect is a force multiplier. And nobody knows whom to blame – as it is convenient for agencies to point fingers at each other. And when you start trying to find out who is really responsible and accountable, where does the buck actually stop, you get no answers. Needless to say, focus is often placed on the symptoms rather than the underlying root causes.

Our two crazies see it differently though. They feel that these problems can be solved by removing the root cause – eliminating open garbage dumping – and causing a reverse cascade away from ugliness. They believe nobody has approached the problem in this fashion – or if they have, it is not apparent.

X orders more coffee. He has made his point.

But who is in charge – surely there must be someone in charge? I ask.

Before plunging in to fix this corner themselves, X & V have done some basic asking around. The question they had was simple – So who’s really in charge of the street in Bangalore? They found that there was no single person or authority. And that is why the streets are such a mess. There is a maze of authorities in charge of different aspects of Bangalore’s civic infrastructure, each of which is a law unto itself – building and maintaining the roads and footpath are the responsibility of the civic authority (BBMP), while the agencies that routinely dig up the roads and footpath to access their assets beneath the road are the water & sewerage utility (BWSSB), the power utility (BESCOM), the telecom utility (BSNL), and a host of private telecom providers (Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance). The government agencies are independent, autonomous and do not take orders from each other (in fact, they are always squabbling), while the private telecom companies are totally a law unto themselves, as they rip apart the city’s roads with gay abandon. If there are rules and laws that govern road repair after repairs/laying cables, then these are not apparent if you move around the city. The rules surely exist on paper somewhere, and there are probably good bureaucratic reasons why nothing gets done. But it is heart-breaking to see roads being dug up within days of being freshly-laid.

Since this “lack-of-coordination problem between the destroyers and builders of the roads & footpaths” is so painfully obvious to all, one would imagine that all these authorities could sit across the table, share their plans and do things in a co-ordinated manner. That would seem like a commonsense approach.  Hah! It’s probably easier to broker overnight peace in Palestine.

It’s not that well-meaning people have not tried. There have been several efforts by many to fix this problem starting at the top. Nandan Nilekani, the founder of Infosys, in his book Imagining India, wrote of his experiences with the Bangalore Agenda Task Force – a unique public-private partnership mandated by the government  in 1999 to help fix Bangalore. Of the many things he mentions, this comment on the lack of co-ordination sums it up well – “we talked about a co-ordinated green channel system, but it just didn’t work’.  When so much effort and discussion has been attempted by both the powers-that- be and by well-meaning, smart empowered citizens like Nandan and his ilk, to solve what is a very obvious problem known to all, and yet there is no apparent change on the ground, what options do the general public have?

What should the regular citizen do when faced with a persistent Ugly Spot near their home/office? Wait for the system to change, and then hope the change trickles down to their street? It had been 9 years since Nandan & Co had tried and met with limited success. What else can one do?  Go to the press? File an RTI application? Or is there something else they can do? Vote for a clean candidate, some say. But how will that help? When the BBMP Commissioner, the man in charge of the city’s roads, has said several times that he himself is powerless. And if the Commissioner and Chief Minister are unable to get things fixed, then who can? Is it that hopeless?

Well, it’s not.  It’s quite simple, once you think about it rationally. Treat it like your own street – and go out there and do it yourself. Become the agency that repairs the damage that others do to your road. And see who stops you! Use your own time and money, and just go out and do it. And if the agency in charge has a problem, let them stop you. After all, what do you lose by trying? Extreme situations need extreme solutions.

That is what X and V are doing. They have decided that the 4 agencies involved in this spot will never really come around to working together. As long as the garbage point persists, garbage will come here everyday, rats will come and gnaw away at the wire, stray dogs will proliferate, and pedestrians will be forced off the footpath onto the narrow road.  Once you get around to analyzing why s**t happens, it is so frustrating and painful that sometimes you just want to just jump in and fix it yourself.

V & X have thought this through logically. They want to address the root cause of this specific local problem, and reverse the trend. They want to first stop people from using this place as a garbage spot through directly talking to them, then repair the footpath and make it usable, and then make it so beautiful that nobody dares dirty it again. And then wait and see when the next digging-up agency comes and how they respond to this change. And if they do not restore the road, just go and do it yourself.

V & X don’t see this Spot as a Garbage problem – that would be too narrow a definition. Or as a Solid Waste Management issue, which is the technical phrase used to discuss garbage.  They just see this Spot as a symbol of a deep-rooted civic problem that creates a host of other problems – in public health, public safety, traffic issues, stray dogs, rodent growth, public aesthetics and much more. And no single government department, or NGO for that matter, is focused on taking complete charge of a physical space and ensuring it is not ugly – and prevent the other problems from happening in the first place. V & X believe this is the space that common citizens (who are generalists) should take up – to take charge of the street unconditionally. Let the specialists worry about technical matters.

At the core of this belief is that Indians are decent people – it is only when they operate in a broken system, they act like ugly Indians. Show them that the system can be made to work in their favour, and the Ugly Indian is the best person on earth. Indians don’t like to rock the boat – they go with the flow. The trick is to change the direction of flow in a way you want.

Phew. This was heavy stuff. And I was drinking it all in. It all made so much sense. And it wasn’t exactly complicated either. Just common sense, which needless to say is rather uncommon these days.

It’s 7pm. It’s been a long day. Time to go, says V. What’s next I ask?
He smiles. See you tomorrow! These guys work in mysterious ways.
Are you planning a stake-out tonight too? I venture.
No, replies X – but we have got our eyes and ears ready. 3 security guards are part of the team now – X & V tell them they will come at 630am, and they should keep an eye on the spot.

What a day. I walk back with them to the Spot for one last look before I head to the bus stop at the Chinnaswamy Stadium.

I had one last question – something that had been nagging me since the very beginning. I asked: “Who pays for all this? I mean, surely all this paint and cement and tools costs a lot of money, doesn’t it?” The truth is I had no idea what all this costs, and I got the expected response. “Well, what do you think it costs” countered V. So typical. Grrr..

I scrambled hard for a decent guess. I didn’t want to seem like a total fool. Rs 1000? I blurted. Rs 2000. Oh, I don’t know!

V smiled. “That was close. We spent a grand total of Rs 850 ($18) – much less than we would have spent on a dinner at any of the places nearby who benefited”.

Is someone funding you, I asked? Will any of these companies pay you back?  Somehow it did not seem right that citizens pay from their own pocket for this. As soon as I asked, I realized it was a stupid question.

V gave me a strange look. Of course not – it’s our money, and this is a good way to spend it, isn’t it? We could also have donated the same amount to charity online, but isn’t this better – here we can see the fruits of our work.

I was stunned, but tried not to show it. That’s it? Just Rs 850? I sometimes spend that much when I go for a weekend movie and dinner at the multiplex. On myself. Then I learn that, this Rs 850 includes Rs 200 they paid to P, the mason, for this professional help.

It took just Rs 850 to fix a decades-old civic problem? This was amazing.
Could I please contribute my share, I heard myself saying, and fished out Rs 200 from my purse. To their credit and to my utter joy, they accepted it rather matter-of-factly. This was easily the best Rs 200 I had ever spent.

X shook my hand and said ‘welcome to the club’. It turns out I was not the first to ask this question. Earlier in the day, Kumar, the Wipro employee had asked the same question and offered a Rs 100 contribution. Several others had also asked out of curiosity – and most were very confused when they were told it was being done with personal money and for no credit. In India, it is perfectly acceptable to spend huge sums of money on fixing your own house and garden, but when you spend a small amount on the road or footpath outside and do the work yourself and take no credit, people look for motives or agendas!

We’ve had this entire discussion on Spotfix funding while standing on the newly reclaimed street corner. There is no foul smell at all, the place looks and feels clean, there are no rats or dogs about, and get this – people are actually using the footpath! This is incredible – how the presence of an inviting looking footpath and absence of ugliness immediately changes people’s behaviour. Without their actually realizing it.

I wave goodbye to my new acquaintances. I find it totally unbelievable that I could spend so much time with these two guys and not even exchange names and numbers. They have given me a codename Agent S and have sworn me to secrecy. They ask if I could come in a bit earlier tomorrow and take a look at the Spot, and I readily agree. I am now part of this secret club and will do my bit! How exciting!

I take notes on my back home – I am just dying to write all this in my blog, but I am sworn to secrecy. Damn – this story needs to be told!  What learning! I had taken a short-term MBA course at a local management institute, and we had read several case studies from the US. They were interesting, but somehow distant and one couldn’t really relate to them. Here was a brilliant case study on my own street in my own city! This needs to be documented, this needs to be shared with the world. And I began taking notes in my diary. I decided to click a few pictures the next day to add to my record. One day, this story will need to be told, and I will be the one tell it! This is my chance to surprise these ugly Indians!

I reflected on the fact that just Rs 850 was spent to achieve so much. X had said that everyone has a mental limit upto which they would spend, no questions asked. Rs 500 each worked well as a personal threshold for X and V – for this experiment (they called it an ‘experiment’, to me it seemed like a huge project!). Sadly not enough Indians think like this. They may spend thousands on personal entertainment, but ask for anonymous contributions for a common civic cause and they get tight-fisted.

I have many friends who have been part of NGOs and done social work. While they do enjoy what they do, I often heard stories of frustration at not being to achieve quick results, and the inefficiency of government authorities. I also used to hear about the difficulty of fund-raising and what one needs to do to impress donors. In fact this is what put me off doing my bit and giving my time for social work.

Somehow today was different. When I reflected on the day’s events, I found it amazing to think that two regular citizens started off something this morning that involved so many people and created such dramatic change by evening. Practically everyone who worked had no such plans for the day and spontaneously joined in a community effort, totally voluntarily. These were strangers who did not know each other, but came together for a common cause. Surely there must be hundreds and thousands of more such people all over Bangalore, and India- yearning for change, but unsure how to start. Imagine if they all got together! I realize I was getting ahead of myself here, so I jotted down my thoughts and closed the diary!

I also decided to surprise V & X the next day. I really wanted to see what happened the next morning – so I fixed up an 830am breakfast meeting with a friend at Indian Coffee House, and decided to come at 8am and ‘inspect’ the spot.

I couldn’t wait!