When Satyakam Dutta was posted to Dibrugarh, Assam, as an Assistant Commissioner with the IT Department in May 2015, little did he know that he would craft a ‘mockumentary’ which would go on to win the Best Documentary Award at the Asia South East Short Film Festival in Cambodia earlier this year.
Dutta is an officer with the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and now posted in Dibrugarh as an Deputy Director.
Titled ‘Finding Beauty in Garbage,’ the mockumentary, which runs a little over seven minutes, is a sharp expose of the severe garbage problem in Dibrugarh, the city which gave Assam its current CM, Sarbananda Sonowal, and India its Chief Justice, Ranjan Gogoi.
Dibrugarh was once a commercial and industrial hub famous for its tea, timber, oil and even coal. There is a lot for locals to be proud of, but the garbage problem isn’t one.
“When I arrived at Dibrugarh, which is now about an hour and a half drive from my home in Dhemaji via the Bogibeel Bridge across river Brahmaputra, I found the garbage situation to be bad. Many garbage bins in the city are left open with trash strewn along footpaths and other pathways, releasing a putrid smell. For locals, it’s nearly impossible to avoid these open garbage dumps. You can see various animals like dogs and cows hovering in and around them,” says Dutta, speaking to The Better India.
Initially, Dutta sought to tag the MyGov Assam Twitter handle—an attempt by the State government to enhance the spirit of participatory governance—and ask them to help the clean the streets in the vicinity of where he worked and travelled.
In order to speed up the process, he reached out to a friend working at MyGov Assam, who asked him to tweet his message again tagging the handle.
“Since he knew me, my friend reached out to the Deputy Commissioner of Dibrugarh, and within a day those streets were cleared of all garbage,” says Dutta.
However, he realised that the privilege of knowing an official in the State government who can call upon the district administration to clean up the streets isn’t available to everyone.
“This isn’t a sustainable solution,” he adds.
Meanwhile, he also observed that on October 2 every year, when the country celebrates Swachh Bharat Day, his office, along with the CRPF personnel and support from the local municipality, would go on an extensive garbage cleaning drive across the city.
“That’s a one-time initiative. I cannot involve people from my office to undertake such tasks on a regular basis. It’s challenging to find volunteers again and again,” says Dutta.
According to the IRS officer, the garbage problem in Dibrugarh is three-fold. For starters, the local municipality, which is responsible for managing garbage, is not doing its work properly. The garbage disposal and collection infrastructure is inadequate and needs a complete overhaul.
Secondly, he believes the district administration must exert more pressure on the municipality than what they have been exercising.
Finally, and this is the most important, Dutta believes that the general public must also take a large slice of the blame. “When the general public sees garbage out in the open or thrown on the road, they take the easy way out and follow suit,” says the IRS officer. Instead of complaining, Dutta felt he needed to something that would target all these three elements.
“That’s when the idea of a documentary or short film, which can interest and engage people with the problem, came to my mind. Also, as an Assamese, I also have a long-standing interest in literature that engages with satire. There is a famous Assamese litterateur Lakshminath Bezbarua, who used to pen works of satire on Assamese society. I thought that if I could make a satirical documentary highlighting the problem, people may start taking note of it,” he says.
So, 18 months ago, the IRS officer began writing a script and enlisted Partha Bhuyan and Chandan Kakoty, two photographers who had shot his wedding in October 2016, to help him execute the idea of a short film.
They offered to work for free since they felt this endeavour had a real social purpose behind it. Moreover, they wanted to step away from the monotony of wedding photography, and engage in filmmaking.
Both Dutta and the photographers took time off their work schedules to intermittently shoot and document the burgeoning garbage sites with their SLRs, drones and mobile phones.
“We would usually shoot in the morning before office hours, whenever there was good light. The shooting took a good ten months since we couldn’t do it regularly. I learnt the art of video editing, did my bit and then handed it over to Chandan, who was confident about giving us a workable output. It actually came out better than expected,” says the IRS officer.
There was no external funding, and Dutta shot the mockumentary completely out of interest and more critically his own pocket. The entire process took 1.5 years, starting from August 2017. After receiving glowing feedback, Dutta sent it for short film festivals around the world, and in his very first attempt, won first prize at the Asia South East Short Film Festival in Cambodia. He would go onto a release the video on YouTube at the turn of this year.
Winning the award in Cambodia definitely helped Dutta open a lot of doors. He received extensive praise from his bosses, who held special screenings in the Income Tax Offices in Guwahati and Dibrugarh, and even the local district administration, with whom he has engaged informally. Dutta plans to hold meetings with district officials, including the Deputy Commissioner and with interested citizens and pressure groups about the problem.
“It’s not as if my mockumentary made all the difference. There was already a lot of public resentment against the garbage problem, but the video definitely played the role of a catalyst,” says the IRS officer.
“District officials have already begun dismantling these large open garbage dumps, put in requests with the State government for funds to purchase more garbage delivery vehicles, besides seeking to initiate other systemic and structural changes in how Dibrugarh can manage all its garbage. Nonetheless, I understand that this is a problem that will take a long time to fix. We need to institute basic waste management practices starting from the household level, institute hefty fines and take other such steps,” concludes Dutta.
There are many districts across the country employing similar initiatives, and Dibrugarh could also take a look at what the Leh district is doing to fix its waste management problem.
Having said that, what the mockumentary has done is highlight a real problem and get the locals talking about what can be done to address it.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)