Chapter 4: The StakeOut!

V & X had done a simple exercise the previous week – something done by thousands of Bangaloreans everyday. They took a walk from Cauvery Emporium on the Brigade Road – MG Road junction to the famous Koshy’s cafe, along the length of Church Street. This is probably one of the most well-trodden paths of Bangalore’s entertainment, food, book and beer seekers, and takes in all the well-known landmarks – Cauvery Handicrafts, the Levi’s store, the Magazines store, Nando’s Chicken, Matteo Cafféa, several icecream and dessert parlours, the popular Queen’s eatery, Shrungar Shopping Centre, the venerable Indian Coffee House, the Amoeba gaming centre & bowling alley, Blossom Book House, Coco’s Beer Bar, Empire Hotel, the Nightwatchman Pub, the Seesh Mahal south Indian eatery, Variety Book Stores, KC Das, and Koshy’s, right next to the Hard Rock Café.

This street was built in the 1830s, when Bangalore was a British cantonment, as a lane for British soldiers to march on for church service at St Mark’s Cathedral – hence the name “Church Street”. Till the 1990s, it remained a narrow lane, a back-street of the main Mahatma Gandhi Road with a couple of restaurants and several lovely colonial bungalows. When Bangalore exploded in 2000, this lane got transformed, with old homes making way for commercial complexes and restaurants. Today it is among the city’s most expensive commercial real estate areas, with hundreds of brand name stores jostling for space – to catch the eye of the Bangalorean.

Luckily for them, most people who walk on Church Street look upwards, at eye level, at the food, books and other stuff on offer. Those who walk along Church Street choose to avoid looking down – it is either too distressing or they don’t care.

V & X decide to look down, and do a quick survey of the street along this 800 metre walk – at a height of upto 3 feet from the ground. They discover an urban nightmare.

They count at least 15 open garbage dumps, 5 death traps (missing footpath slabs), about 500 feet of ugly walls used as open urinals, litter literally everywhere and more so in corners, graffiti and posters on walls, public utilities disfigured and plastered with posters, several large potholes, overflowing sewers, non-existent footpaths, piles of stinking sewage, construction debris lying about blocking the footpath, illegal parking. In other words, a normal Bangalore street.

And most people choose to walk on the street as the footpath is just too dangerous to walk on – it seems safer to share space with maniacs driving cars and motorbikes in both directions (it is a one-way street, needless to say).

To V & X it was mystifying that a street with several large companies, media houses, upscale restaurants and trendy cafes would allow its footpaths and walls to degenerate to this abominable level. Surely, it was in their business interest to have a clean street?

They met with the owners of several establishments, many of whom are well-known names in Bangalore – from Prem Koshy (Koshy’s) to Maji Gowda (proprietor at Blossom Books) to Suhail Yusuf  (boss of the Brigade Rd Association) to Shankar (partner at Indian Coffee House) – and the answer was almost identical. ‘The government is not doing its job. We have been fighting for years and there has been no change’. Well, if the influential and powerful businesses on Church Street & Brigade Road could not change things, what could two unknown citizens with zero experience do? Isn’t that what all of us think – what difference can I make? Why should I even get involved?

It’s a bit like an accident scene on a road in India – hundreds of people will stop and stare, and only a few will take the lead and step forward, get involved and try to make a difference, however amateur and unskilled it is. And once someone takes charge, the others step back, maybe take a picture on their phone and get on with their lives.

The civic crisis on Church Street is plainly visible to all. Yet nobody is stepping forward to take charge and do something about it. It is so typical that it is not even surprising.

V & X have decided to act, and they decide to take on the biggest dump of them all – the Mother of all Dumps – right outside Times of India and Wipro. If neither of these billion-dollar companies could make a change right outside their offices (despite making efforts over the past 20 years), it seemed the right challenge to take on – if only to prove a point that it is possible.

And so, our duo arrives on Friday night, armed to the teeth, for their midnight hit. They have done their homework and have a clear gameplan. As the Chinese saying goes, a 1000-mile journey begins with a small step. It also helps to take that first step in the right direction, and with the right footwear!

What V & X do not know is that apart from being a chronic garbage dump, this spot suffers from several other unseen, but serious, issues, that prevent  it being fixed easily – and that these are the very same issues that plague the city of Bangalore. They have picked the right spot to fix, but not for reasons they yet know. This particular dump is a symptom of a much deeper and basic infrastructure and governance issue and fixing it will take them on a fascinating journey into the underbelly of the city’s civic systems.

They had met the Admin Manager at Wipro that morning. She claimed they were a green company and doing a lot for the city – which is true. Like most responsible companies, Wipro is doing its bit. So is their neighbour the Times of India- who was running a high-decibel media campaign on Waste Management. Yet, when officials in these companies were presented the picture of the Ugly Spot right outside their offices, they just shrugged helplessly and said we cannot control what happens on the street, even if it is right outside our office –  it is not our responsibility.

For V & X, this was entirely predictable, part of a pattern of responses they were used to getting. The next question they were asked always was – who are you, are you from an NGO, and why do you care?  Do you live here or work here? And X & V would say no – we are just concerned citizens, we are not part of an NGO, we live far away, and are just troubled that the heart of our city is such a mess, and want to fix it. They got polite smiles and were wished luck.

They got down to work. But, how do you fix an Open Garbage Dump? Where do you even begin?

The first, obvious step is to figure out who exactly dumps garbage here. All that our duo have gathered from asking around is “all this happens at night”. The only way to test this out is to sit and watch, and catch the culprits red-handed! V & X haven’t seen anyone dumping in the daytime, and so they reason that it happens at night.

Garbage dumping on the road (which, by the way, is illegal) should happen everyday, they surmise, so it should be easy to identify the culprits by sitting around at night and keeping watch. And that is what has got them here to their look-out point in the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank.

They had arrived at 1145pm with their tools, found a large pile of garbage here. Leftover food, plastic packaging, beer cans, used plates, corn cobs, tubelights, broken chairs, an abandoned carpet, loads of thermocol packaging, and other assorted stinking trash. They chopped up the large pieces into smaller portions, and packed them in 4 big garbage bags. They had photographed the garbage in detail before clearing it – this evidence was going to be useful in the morning. And then they did something odd – they cleaned up the place, swept it, filled a few holes with mud and bricks, moved out all the loose stones and debris, leveled the area and made it look cleaner than it probably ever has. It took them all of 15 minutes.

And then they positioned themselves at the bank premises across the road to observe what happens. They had come prepared for a long night, armed with snacks, music and mosquito repellent.

They didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes, a dishevelled character with a huge bag slung on his shoulder walked by the Spot. He looked at the spot, and something seemed amiss – it was clean! He probably found something of value in the garbage here every night – this was the local ragpicker, the ‘vagabond recycler’, who lives off the streets and its pickings. V & X’s clinically executed hit had ensured that the spot was clean at 12 midnight.

Somewhat surprised, he moved on to the next Spot down the road near Hotel Empire, clearly confused at the lack of treasure here. The ragpicker, Muthu, as V & X discovered later, is part of a large community of people who roam the streets at night, competing for the scraps that are left at street corners. Called ‘chappars’ (local derogatory slang) or waste-pickers (dignified NGO language) they seek things of value that they can sell at the neighbourhood recycler, and earn enough to get them through the day. It is a competitive business, and this guy clearly was a first-mover, getting in before the others. Today was a bad night, and V & X, looking on from across the road, actually felt guilty and bad for him.

It was soon 1am. No garbage had come yet. The Spot was still clean. This was strange. Everyone blamed the pubs and restaurants who closed at 1130pm, alleging that their employees dumped the garbage here at around 1230am on their way home.  But there was no proof.  They did a quick tour of all the pubs at 130am – and strangely, all the pub premises were clean, their garbage neatly stacked in bins or bags inside their premises. Out of reach of ragpickers and dogs. This wasn’t making sense at all.

2am…3am…4am.. 5am…and nothing at all.  The Stake-out was getting incredibly boring and uneventful!
Bangalore is actually very quiet and peaceful at night – even the well-fed street dogs doze soundly. The street lights are working, it’s quite nice! It is now a 24×7 city, and in many of these offices, in the wee hours of a Saturday morning thousands of business transactions and interactions are in progress, as the famous back-office of the world hums to the time zones of London and San Francisco.

It was getting to 6am…disappointingly, there had been no garbage activity at all, and suddenly there was the roar of a truck. When you have been sitting all night, waiting for something to happen, even a small activity or diversion is rewarding.

A young stocky man maneuvered his truck near the Spot, and stopped to make a phone call. It was a garbage truck. What was it doing here at 6am?  X and V observed him secretly. He went to the various pubs and restaurants and picked up their garbage, which was packed neatly in bags, and handed it over to his hardworking staff atop the truck.  No garbage touched the ground – it was a quick, clean operation that took barely 15 minutes and he was about to leave. X and V emerged from their hide-out and walked up to him – if he was startled by the appearance of two sleepy-eyed characters at this time, he did not show it.

“Hi, my name is Ravi” – he extended his hand, spoke in good English. It turns out he was a graduate and ran a piggery on the outskirts of town. He was contracted by the pubs and restaurants here to take their leftover food with which he fed his pigs. It was a great business – he was paid to pick up food waste and he got free food for his pigs. He said that there were 30 restaurants on Church Street, and there are at least 2 other piggeries that serviced this area. He explained that this was a growing business, as the city is growing and eating out more, and there is money in garbage!

Now this was news. In all their meetings with activists and others who dealt with garbage, V & X had only been told about the inefficient government systems for garbage disposal, the corruption in the contracts, the mafia who controlled things, the lack of scientific solid waste management and so on. Most people on the street blamed the restaurants and pubs for Church Street’s woes. And yet, here at 6am was an efficient, private garbage system that seemed to work. Food waste was being separately stored and being sent to feed pigs.  Restaurants cannot afford their food not to be picked up everyday (storing rotting food on the premises is a recipe for disaster), so the stakes are high, explained  Ravi, and he simply cannot miss a day of pickup. Not only will he lose money, he will get blacklisted.

Incredibly, this seemed to be a system that actually worked well – and probably because it is privately managed and paid for by the customer. This was a huge learning – that a parallel efficient privately run service operates at night! X made a note to find out more about this – it was strange that he had never heard or read about this system. Perhaps there are several such piggery-owning food-waste-collectors operating across Bangalore. A question to ask Ravi for next time!

Ravi confessed that he could not help V & X with their mission of figuring out how to fix their Spot, as this was not a pickup point for him. But he did say that there was a lot of garbage here every night, and ‘today it is oddly clean’. He could not understand it. They exchanged phone numbers and accepted an invitation to join him on his truck another day to visit his pig farm.

It was almost sunrise…and this was getting frustrating…when you want garbage to be dumped, it doesn’t come!

As dawn broke, one fact clearly dawned on our duo – nobody dumps garbage here at night. Or anywhere on this street for that matter. The myth that ‘everyone dumps at night’ was just that – a myth, like many other myths and misconceptions that prevail in this gritty business of SpotFixing.

It is amazing what one night’s quiet observation can teach you about a garbage dump.  If you want to solve a civic problem, a good start is to observe, for yourself, why the problem is caused in the first place. Do not go by what other people tell you.

At 630am, there was sudden action – and things began to get a lot clearer!