We’ve all seen superhero movies, especially the ones where hardly anyone knows who actually the superhero is. There’s Batman, Superman etc. Well, that’s just movies and fiction. But, How is it to be a Superhero in real life? Solving problems, helping people, being famous, keeping your identity secret, making a dent in the Universe. The most important part of being a superhero is to stay anonymous, not to reveal your identity, to keep the world curious, to have people talking about you and your work and inspire millions. If you don’t stay anonymous, you’ll still be famous, you’ll be a celebrity. That could be good or bad. You could get into trouble, somebody would sue you for no reason, you might get into a controversies etc. Unlike in movies, making such a huge impact in the real world is not so easy. Keeping the identity secret is even harder. Only a few will be able to make it. Knowingly or unknowingly, they become a superhero for a city or a community or the entire world.
Bangalore, like most other Indian cities has a serious garbage issue. It is not clear if this is because of improper system in place or the mentality of people but the issue has been getting bigger and worse. A lot of people tried to intervene, Citizen organizations, RWAs, NGOs, Politicians, Social Enterprises, everyone. May be their work made an impact but not at the scale of this particular campaign. There was one person who started a movement. He brought a bunch of people together who called themselves ‘The Ugly Indians’. TGI was an anonymous group who started cleaning up the streets of Bangalore. Their philosophy – Kaam chalu mooh bandh. Stop Talking, Start Doing. They would choose a ‘blackspot’ or a garbage dump and fix a cleanup drive on a Saturday or Sunday morning. They would go with their tools, clean up the place and repaint it or re structure it, beautify the place and silently get out of there. Anyone could join this by sending them an email or connecting with them through their site or facebook page. The man behind this movement had a long term plan. He had a very creative, design based approach towards the entire garbage issue. He wanted to make sure that they had a larger impact on the issue.
TUI never wanted media attention unlike politicians or NGOs who would send a pre-event press release and a post event press release for a simple cleanup drive.All they wanted was to get noticed, to inspire, to show that you can make change happen. The solution is not just cleaning up this place. You go clean up a garbage dump, people will throw trash again and the dirty pile of garbage will be back by morning. In fact, most of these ‘blackspots’ are cleaned up by BBMP, the city corporation everyday but people still throw Garbage there. There is a lot of observation, psychology and behavioral study behind the solution. In his book, the Ugly Indian or the ‘Anamik Nagarik’ writes about how Osama’s location in Abottabad was confirmed. Yes, it was the trash that gave him away. The fact the absolutely no trash was coming out of that house made it look more suspicious. If you seriously look into all the small things in a trash can or a dump, you can say where it came from, what kind of a person generated this trash, was he/she in a good mood or not, their family relationships, their bank balances, their phone numbers and bills, what all and what not. Sometimes garbage can come to a dump from as far as 20 kms. It’s mostly not from the same neighborhood. Nobody wants to litter their own place. If they had a little more sense of ownership for their neighborhood or area or on the garbage dump, they would take care of it. If that place was useful for them, even more. Another thing about these blackspots is the location where they’re formed. It’s usually a corner or an empty plot. People throw their trash there because there’s no one or nothing objecting them.
The TUI approach to this problem was to beautify the place, try to provide an alternative arrangement for trashing or urination and make the people feel that they own the place. They started cleaning up or ‘spotfixing’ ‘blackspots’ in Bangalore. The Ugly Indian went on meeting people and giving talks, spreading awareness, inspiring people, explaining their technique. He always emphasized on nGoG – No Garbage on Ground. He started working with NGOs, Politicians and finally with corporate. Politicians worked with him for mileage. Companies worked with him to spend their CSR budget and to engage their employees in team building activities. People working in IT companies came and cleaned up some of the most dirtiest garbage dumps, they worked together, they enjoyed it. He made this entire Garbage Cleaning business look cool. He added the wow factor. People would feel good that they made change happen, they could see change happening in front of their eyes.
The next level was great. His website and facebook posts inspired a few people around the country. They got in touch with him. He traveled around the country and mobilized groups similar to the ones in Bangalore. With him he took the techniques, the same approach to the problem and the same design. That’s the best thing he ever did. He maintained his brand through the colors and shapes and structures used in the beautification or re-structuring work. And soon, his brand was in almost every neighborhood of every major city in India. All these pictures started coming on facebook. People from nooks and corners of the country started following the page. The viral sites picked up the story of an anonymous group of people cleaning the streets. It was just more feed for them but it was mileage for the entire movement.
Then, the BBMP, signed a memorandum with The Ugly Indian to clean up the streets of Bangalore under its ‘Namma Bengaluru, Nanna Koduge’ (NBNK or Our Bangalore, my contribution) drive.. This news was on newspapers, the mayor even tweeted about it but the identity of the person who signed this deal was kept secret. His statements were there on the newspapers but he was anonymous. May be he never wanted publicity, may be he wanted to keep the people curious or may be he just wanted to be a Superhero.
After a few more days, The Ugly Indian himself comes on one of the radio channels in Bangalore and talks about his work. He does not reveal his identity. The world is curious to know who this man is? What has he done before this? How has he inspired others? How did he become this?. But only a few, who have worked with him closely will know. May be some day we’ll have Mr. So and So Institute of Social Development in his name when his identity is revealed or may be it’s never revealed at all. But the way I see him is as a Superhero – A man who had the guts to find a solution for a problem, who worked for the society, who inspired overr a hundred thousand people, who chose to remain anonymous. Respect!