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How Indore Became Garbage-Free and Beat Every Other City to It

It has taken one courageous mayor, one driven municipal commissioner, a few dedicated men, remarkably little money and 18 months to transform the face of the city

On the surface, Indore looks like any another unremarkable town in central India. Unlike its less commercial cousin – Bhopal – Indore really has little to offer in terms of visual beauty and charm. Even the fact that it is the commercial hub of Madhya Pradesh isn’t very evident to an outside observer.

But don’t judge a book by its cover. At this point in time, there is nothing less than a mini revolution going on in the city and, in particular, in its citizenry. At a red light, a writer saw a taxi driver tell off an auto rickshaw driver who spat on the road that he should watch it; else he will call the helpline. “Fine lag jayega”, he told him angrily while uttering some other words that are better left unsaid.

There’s another strange thing one notices if one drives around the city long enough. All the stuff that usually lines many Indian sidewalks across the country is by and large missing here.

No uncle chips and Haldiram packets, no filthy peels of fruits, no plastic bags, no flies, no stray dogs.

A clean Indore. Source: Facebook

Even the cows are missing! So much so that when one actually spots a plastic bag, it rankles. For regular Indian eyes trained and accustomed to trash, the obvious question that arises is, what on earth is going on in this town?

Here’s what. A man barks some instructions into a Motorola walkie-talkie as the car zips down the road heading towards his next engagement. His instructions reach 400 officials including ward heads (also known as daroghas) to scrub the public toilet seats so there are no marks left whatsoever. “Just throwing some water in won’t solve the problem,” he explains in chaste but firm Hindi. The urgency in his tone is a bit unnerving. Traveling with him in the vehicle, you can’t shake off the feeling that you are in some kind of a war zone. A war against garbage.

But just barking orders is not how Manish Singh, the 49-year-old municipal commissioner, 2009 IAS batch, MP cadre – who has been municipal commissioner of Bhopal too – has achieved this remarkable feat. When he joined in May 2015, a private company entrusted with the task was almost defunct and no services were being provided. The city was filthy, as anyone who lived there or visited will testify. He found almost 1,800 spots in the city that were eyesores. A public interest litigation had been filed by an activist in the city against the authorities. Asad Warsi, director of Eco Pro Environmental Services, working as a consultant to the authorities, says Indore was “no different than Lucknow, Allahabad or several other UP towns” – often spoken of as role models of how bad things can get.

Backed by a committed and gutsy mayor – Malini Laxman Singh Gaur – Manish has employed every possible tactic available to get the job done. But to start with, he started doing what municipal corporations are supposed to – door to door collection of garbage.

The city generates around 1,100 metric tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) a day. Collection services by municipal authorities are now on offer at almost every door (including slum areas and illegal colonies) at ₹60 a month (less than what private services charge). Three drivers that a reporter spoke to confirm that the areas where they live have “never been cleaner”.

Commercial establishments can avail the service twice a day. A separate collection system with bigger vehicles is being put in place for 1450 bulk waste generators.

Collecting garbage from every household is one aspect. Keeping public areas and roads clean is another.

Main roads are swept thrice a day instead of twice as in most cities.

Corporate employees help clean Indore. Source: Twitter

Mechanical sweepers are used every alternate day on roads. Roads are washed every night by pressure jets with the aim to make the city dust-free, a task that sounds impossible in Indian towns. The trenching ground has a massive shed to wash all the Nigam trucks on a regular basis. As a result, no trash can be spotted sticking onto the trucks as is commonly seen elsewhere.

Almost 1,400 dustbins all over the city have been removed. Removed instead of added. Why ? Because residents who had no option – since door-to-door collection services had come to a halt – put their garbage into plastic bags and threw them into public dustbins – often not taking the trouble of getting out of the car but just chucking from the car window in the direction of the public bin. The result was, more garbage around the bin than in it, several stray animals and rag pickers poking their heads in, a filthy mess at the most prime locations and unpleasant smells all over the city. “Removal of dustbins is in some ways proof that door-to-door collection is happening and is efficient,” explains Manish. Smaller litter-bins have now been placed and are being added for pedestrian use. 175 community and public toilets have been made operational and it is estimated that the city will need to add around 50 more as of now. Several public urinals have been constructed with working sewage lines.

18 months ago, even in richer colonies and more upmarket areas, there would usually be open garbage spots – either in empty plots or at some convenient corner – where people threw their trash daily. Over 850 such open spots have been removed, in a phased manner across 85 wards.

Sarafa is a popular local hang out and a place to sample the famous street food of Indore. Most well-off Indore residents never visited this area because it was littered with trash and infested with flies and stray animals. Anshu Bhargava, who runs a leisure farm and agro-park in the city, says she has avoided eating at Sarafa for as long as she can remember but visited it twice last year. She says it’s clean and that makes the food looks appetizing. Hawkers point you to the bin even before they collect payment; failure to keep the area around them clean means losing their spots and livelihoods.

The most commonly spotted vehicle in the city is the yellow Nagar Nigam trucks (they have 800 vehicles now), running between colonies and the trenching ground.

Close to 50-60 jeeps have been given to ward heads, giving them mobility and no excuse to not do their job. The 85 ward heads keep a hawk’s eye on their wards, fining (spot fine collection has been roughly ₹80 lakh in the last 18 months) and charging penalties from offenders. They, in turn, risk the wrath of their boss, a man not known to brook any defiance. Sources say that close to 600 safai karamcharis who refused to work have been fired after taking six union heads into “alliance and confidence”. A 1,000 willing workers have been hired instead, taking the total number of staff to 6,500 at present.

Other than fines, user charges have been levied for all occasions. Even a political rally has to pay a per head charge to the authorities. Even senior politicians are paying these for their events. If they don’t comply, the newspapers report it.

Residents explain that strong-arm tactics have also been employed with more stubborn offenders like slum dwellers. 7000-8000 jhuggis have been moved and removed. Those who breed animals – cows, dogs, pigs – but leave them out as strays during the day have been dealt with quite firmly. Temporary labour encampments have also been dealt with stringently and in many cases demolished.

Of course, as with all such drives, it is only possible with strong political will. Besides the support of a dedicated mayor, a lot of this has been possible with the tacit support of local politicians, authorities and the media. At public forums, the commissioner is instantly surrounded by the local media – a rock star-like halo enveloping him. He makes sure he briefs them thoroughly and with attention.

Manish says that besides the support of a strong mayor, any municipal commissioner has to take a daily morning rounds across wards. That’s all he needs to do from 6 am to 9 am, he explains, for things to fall in place, making it sound like a cakewalk. In the initial months, Manish and his team of 400 started their day at 5:30 am every day and scoured the area – gali wise – till 10 am. People began to fear the Nigam jeeps like they did the police jeeps. He personally has the power to charge a fine up to ₹1 lakh from an offender.

Six NGOs including BASIX with 400 volunteers have been roped in to explain sorting, segregation and to create public awareness. A huge awareness campaign was launched across media; be it radio FM (well-known jockeys have been made brand ambassadors), TV ads, jingles, talk shows and newspapers. Young children and youth know the jingles by heart and have acted as brand ambassadors for the Nigam. Slogans have been painted on one and half lakh square meters of wall space across the city, discouraging and warning citizens from spitting, public urination and littering. It’s hard to see a wall without a message painted.

The trenching ground – where all the collected garbage is brought – is a sight to savour. Green and spotless, none of the usual smells greet you. After the garbage is sorted and cleaned, composting is done. The compost has been used to develop green areas and belts around the garbage dump. The result is that the green overshadows the trash. A huge shed stands in one corner; it’s the bathing area for trucks. Plastic segregated from the garbage heap is moved further to a NGO-run plastic recycling centre that compresses the plastic and sells it to a road manufacturer and a cement plant. Indore has been declared plastic-free and several thousand tons of plastic bags have been seized from marketplaces and shop owners.

On May 4 this year, 18 months of hard work paid off – the city was declared number one in the Swacch Bharat ranking, up from 86 in 2015, prompting IIM Indore to do a case study on it. IIM Indore’s Director, Rishikesh Krishnan, says he himself has experienced the alacrity and commitment of the current urban local body. He had requested for a speed-breaker to be built outside their campus but nothing happened for two years. Manish had it built within two days of his visit to the IIM campus.

Manish estimates that the total amount spent on the drive till May 4 was ₹60 crore and says so far 75 per cent of their work is done; 25% still remains. Pressure on him to sustain what has been achieved is mounting as well. Experts in the sector warn that individual-led drives and efforts often peter out once the concerned personalities change – a danger Indore is also susceptible to.

But what may save and sustain the exercise is the change in the public itself. When the residents have seen results (an efficient and committed municipal body), they have met the authorities more than halfway. Manish counts this as their biggest victory – the perceptible change in public attitude. “Throw something on the road and you will attract dirty looks and in many cases reprimands. Even arguments and physical fights have broken out,” he adds.

About the author: Anjuli Bhargava is a Consulting Editor for Business Standard.

This article was originally published in Business Standard.

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