Why is India So Filthy by The Ugly Indian at TEDxBangalore (Transcript)

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The Ugly Indian

Don’t let my mask scare you, I’m just trying to stay anonymous. My name is Anamik Nagrik. I’m a proud Indian and I have one problem with my country. And the problem is: why is India so filthy?

I’ve traveled outside India, in neighboring countries in Asia, my friends have been to Africa, and we can all agree on one thing: in India we tolerate filth on our streets. But why? We can send a rocket to Mars, but we can’t fix this problem. Why do we keep our houses clean and our streets dirty? Even McDonalds has come to Bangalore. It’s cleaning the steps of its outlet out there, but you can see how dirty it is outside. They’re either incapable or unwilling to fix what’s outside. So what’s the problem? Why are we like this? And I think all of us in this audience know the answer: “It’s not my problem. I pay tax. I vote. Isn’t that enough? What more should I do?”

And some of you will say: “Okay. I want to fix it. I don’t even know how to start!”

Let me take you to dreamland. In this dreamland, there is no corruption. The government is strong. Our budget goes up ten times. Do you think our cities will be clean? What do you think? The answer is no. I think we all realize it’s not about money or systems. It is about us as a people.

Look at this picture. Can someone shout out: which city is this from? Look closely, look at the furniture. Can you guess? Shout out. Which city is this? It’s not Bangalore. Look closely again. There’s a clue out here, the Bank of India. The other clue is that it’s very poorly maintained. There are paan stains everywhere. This is a restaurant. It is Singapore, and it is Little India in Singapore. And what does this tell us about us? What is Singapore’s brand image? Cleanliness, it is a fine city, they enforce laws, they are very affluent. They care about their look.

But when a group of Indians lives in one neighborhood, we seem to bring down the civic standards. We can beat the world’s best systems. In fact, I would like to say, and I’m an Indian, we are the undisputed world champions of public filth.

Why do we need a policeman when we have a traffic light? Because we are a society that doesn’t like to follow rules.

In Bangalore, dustbins are not allowed. You are expected to keep your garbage at home until the collector comes, but it doesn’t seem to work. So one neighborhood in Bangalore, Indiranagar, said, “Let’s put dustbins.” So they put dustbins and see what happened. We don’t like to follow rules, so all the garbage is outside the dustbins.

Now this is the problem with us as a society: We need to all admit that we are all Ugly Indians and more importantly, only we can save us from ourselves. And as long as we’re emotional about it, we won’t solve it.

And so do you think there is any hope? What do you all think? A lot of people have given up, they leave the country, they stay in gated communities. But some people said, “No, let us try and fix this problem in an Indian way by understanding the Indian psychology.” So social experiments began on Church Street in Bangalore in 2010, where the idea was simple: Let us understand Indian’s behavior from a point of view of culture, behavioral psychology. Let’s see what it takes to make an Ugly Indian change. But most importantly, without him or her realizing it. We don’t like to be told what to do. We have to be fooled into improving our behavior.

Can we nudge an Ugly Indian towards better behavior in public spaces? And you may have heard of the Broken Window Theory which says that if a place is ugly, it becomes uglier. If a place is beautiful, it commands respect.

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There’s another theory in economics called the Tragedy of the Commons, which means we care for our private spaces, we don’t care about public spaces. India is the perfect example of both these theories in action.

This is Koramangala. That lady is throwing garbage on the road in a beautiful part of an upscale neighborhood. And why is she doing it? Because someone has already thrown before.

What can we do to make her change her behavior without her knowing it? This is a typical example of civic problems in India: Paan stains on the wall. This is on the wall of Deccan Herald Newspaper in Church Street. It has been like this forever. Because there are paan stains, people urinate on it. Nobody walks on that footpath.

So a few people sat, and observed it, and tried an experiment. This is what they did: they painted the wall, they painted a red band at the bottom, they put some flower pots, and incredibly, there were no more paan stains on that wall. And why? Because the person spitting paan is trying his best to be clean. He chooses to spit into the pot. If he by mistake spits into the corner, the red color masks it. Once people stopped spitting, people actually go on the footpath. It works. There are dozens of walls in Bangalore with the red band at the bottom that has taken an Indian solution to apply to an Indian problem.

This is very common; this is Indiranagar. The young school boy is facing a death trap. We see this very often. Have any of you never seen a death trap? Bangalore is full of death traps. The little boy has to walk around. Look at that footpath. If you go and ask the residents, they have complained for years. Nothing has happened. Three people said, “Let’s fix it.” This is what they did. They actually went and fixed the footpath. It has remained fixed for 6 months. What’s the message? If you see a problem, you go fix it. Nobody stops you. You can actually make a change. Don’t waste your time complaining.

Litter bins are a problem. Why? Sometimes they look like animals, they’re made of fiberglass, they catch fire with cigarettes, some litter bins are rusting, they’re falling on the ground. Don’t litter bins look so dirty that they actually bring down the aesthetics of the place? The litter bin is supposed to make it clean. Sometimes they’re not there where you want them so people improvise. They put litter in trees. So some people said, “Can we design a litter bin that will not get stolen, that looks beautiful, that people will use, that lasts through the weather, and actually improves the aesthetics of the place?” So they came up with something called the Tere Bin, which is a designer dustbin. This is on MG Road in Bangalore, Brigade Road rather. The beautiful part of it is it is not stealable. Nobody wants it because it is made of materials nobody wants. It works, it looks clean. And for the last 3 years, there are 200 dustbins across Bangalore. And it has worked because somebody applied his mind to solve a problem as a problem. This is in front of ITPL. The dustbin is exactly where you need it, near a bus stop. People use it. It has worked.

And this is the biggest problem of all: open garbage. This is outside the Koramangala Club. You would think they would figure it out, but they didn’t, and some people said, “Let’s make this as an example,” and this is what they did. It has remained fixed. It is not a photo op at all.

And the reason well known places are taken is that if people who are rich, powerful, and with social pressure cannot do it, then there is something wrong with us. This is outside the house of Dr. Rajkumar. Poor Mr. Puneeth Rajkumar has to see this every year. He’s got amazing social power, he couldn’t fix it. This is what was done. And it has remained fixed for the last 6 months.

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This is J.P. Nagar outside Ambareesh’s house. We’ve chosen people who are important who can get things done, but it requires the public to do it.

This is outside a slum. This is cow dung. This is where children wait for their school bus. It’s become a beautiful bus stop.

This is outside a tech park. Every tech park in Bangalore – this is Outer Ring Road has got open drains. There are billion dollar companies in there. Apparently nobody is willing to fix this. They’re all blaming somebody else. A few people went, made it a safe zone, made it a bus stop. It’s working! And so the point is whether it’s a slum, or a tech park, or an affluent zone, you can make change.

This is in Whitefield nearby. This is actually an open toilet. The slum at the back has people who use the toilet.

That’s a wine shop. This is in the Jagriti theater. It’s crazy, so some people in Whitefield said, “Let’s fix it.” So they fixed it, but what happened? People still threw garbage. You cannot fix a place by just painting it. You have to solve the underlying problem.

So on day two, five people went to all the houses and said, “From tomorrow we will make a new system, so you don’t need to put your garbage on the ground.”

See what happened.

What is interesting is that all the people, the slumdwellers, the wine shop owner, the Jagriti people, people in apartments, got together to solve a common problem. They had never spoken to each other before. They used to complain to each other about each other before. When the community comes together to fix a common problem, it is no longer a tragedy of the commons, this is a victory of the commons. And this particular project has spawned many more projects in Whitefield.

Now look closely. This is actually urine outside a wine shop. Indian men need to urinate and let’s accept that. Let’s not get emotional about it. Can we make them urinate in a dignified way and rescue the public space? So this is a wine shop, there’s urine outside. The wine shop owner couldn’t be bothered. It created an innovation where someone said, “Let’s create a dignified way for men to urinate and rescue our public space.” It resulted in something called the Wonderloo which is an open-air urinal, a private space where men urinate, and the rest of the wall gets rescued.

Now who did all these projects? Look closely. There are senior citizens. That lady is in her seventies. She’s holding a crow bar. There are retired army officers, slum children, the wine shop owner. They all came together and did this project. There was no contract labor at all. It was all done entirely by citizens. And that evening, people came in their car to buy liquor, and they used the restroom in the open. Everybody is happy. So everybody, all the stakeholders in that spot eventually got what they wanted. Even though they have hugely opposing ideologies, they’re getting along, and that’s the big message out there.

So what do you think? Is there any hope? Yeah, that’s good.

Over 400 such spots have been fixed, but what’s more interesting is 90% have survived, and that’s an excellent survival rate for problems that were so chronic that no one even knew how to start solving them.

But how does it all work? That’s what I’m here to tell you. It’s not about going and painting a wall, there’s much more to it than that. And the most important thing is this: “Kaam Chalu, Mooh Bandh!” Which means Only work, No talk! Bayi Muchko, Kelasa Hachko. It’s as simple as that.

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