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The lesson India must learn from Indore

By Anjuli Bhargava
October 02, 2017 10:42 IST
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The city is waging a war against garbage, says Anjuli Bhargava.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Indore is India's cleanest city

On the face of it, Indore looks like just another unremarkable Indian town in central India.

Unlike its less commercial cousin, Bhopal, Indore has little to offer in terms of visual beauty and charm.

The fact that it is the commercial hub of Madhya Pradesh also isn’t 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 on in the city and, in particular, in its citizenry.

At a traffic light, this writer saw a taxi driver tell off an auto-rickshaw driver who spat on the road that he should watch it or else he would call the helpline. "Fine lag jayega (You’ll be fined)," 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.

No discarded wafer or bhujiya packets, no filthy peels of fruits, no plastic bags, no flies, no stray dogs; even the cows are missing. So much so, that when one does spot a plastic bag, it rankles.

For regular Indian eyes, accustomed to trash, the obvious question is: what on earth is going on in this town?

Here's what.

He 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 get the public toilet seats scrubbed so there are no marks left whatsoever. “Just throwing some water in won't solve the problem,” he says in chaste but firm Hindi.

Travelling with him in the vehicle, you can't shake off the feeling that you are in some kind of war zone. A war against garbage.

But Manish Singh, Indore’s 49-year-old municipal commissioner, who has also been the municipal commissioner of Bhopal, has not achieved this remarkable feat by just barking orders.

When this 2009 batch, Madhya Pradesh cadre Indian Administrative Service officer, took office in May 2015, A to Z, the 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.

Singh found almost 1,800 spots that were "eyesores".

A public interest litigation had been filed by an activist against the authorities.

Asad Warsi, director of Eco Pro Environmental Services, working as a consultant to the authorities, says Indore was "no different from Lucknow, Allahabad or several other Uttar Pradesh towns" -- often spoken of as "role models" of how bad things can get.

Backed by a committed and gutsy mayor (Malini Laxman Singh Gaur), he has employed every possible tactic available to get the job done.

To begin with, he started doing what municipal corporations are set up to do: door-to-door collection of garbage.

The city generates 1,100 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste, or MSW, a day.

Collection services by municipal authorities are now on offer at almost every door, including slum areas and illegal colonies, at Rs 60 a month (less than what private services charge). Three drivers this reporter speaks to confirm that the areas -- not posh ones expectedly -- where they live have "never been cleaner".

Commercial establishments can avail of the service twice a day.

A separate collection system with bigger vehicles is being put in place for 1,450 bulk waste generators.

Collecting garbage from every household is one aspect.

Keeping public areas and roads clean is another.

The main roads are swept thrice a day, instead of twice as in most cities.

Mechanical sweepers are used every alternate day on roads that 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 on to the trucks as is commonly seen elsewhere.

Almost 1,400 dustbins across the city have been removed. Removed -- instead of being 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 to get out of the car, but just chucking the bags from the window in the direction of the public bin.

The result: 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 odour all over the city.

"The removal of dustbins is, in some ways, proof that door-to-door collection is happening and is efficient," says Singh.

Smaller litter bins have now been placed and are being added for pedestrian use.

In all, 175 community and public toilets have been made operational and it is estimated that the city will need to add around 50 more for now.

A year-and-a-half ago, even in richer colonies and 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 hangout 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 has now gone twice in the last year.

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 (800 now), running between colonies and the trenching ground.

Close to 60 Jeeps have also been given to the ward heads, who keep a hawk-eyed watch on their wards, fining (spot fine collection was roughly Rs 80 lakh in the last 18 months) and charging penalties from offenders.

Sources say close to 600 safai karamcharis who refused to work have been fired after taking six union heads into “alliance and confidence”.

A thousand willing workers have been hired instead (taking the total 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 as do senior politicians for their events. If they don’t comply, the newspapers report it.

Residents explain that strong-arm tactics have also been employed with the more stubborn offenders like slum-dwellers: 7,000 to 8000 jhuggis have been moved or removed.

Those who breed animals -- cows, dogs, pigs -- but leave them out as strays during the day have been dealt with firmly.

Temporary labour encampments have also been dealt with stringently and in many cases demolished.

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.

Singh says for things to fall in place, a municipal commissioner has to take a daily morning round across wards. "That's all he needs to do, from 6 am to 9 am."

In the initial months, Singh and his team of 400 started their day at 5.30 am and scoured the area -- galli-wise -- till 10 am. People began to fear the Nigam Jeeps like they did the police. 

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: on radio, where well-known jockeys have been made brand ambassadors, through TV ads, jingles, talk shows and newspapers.

Slogans have been painted on 1.5 lakh square metres of wall space across the city, discouraging and warning citizens against spitting, public urination and littering. 

The trenching ground -- where all the collected garbage is brought -- is a sight to behold.

Green and spotless, none of the usual smells accost you.

After the garbage is sorted and cleaned, composting is done. The compost is used to develop green areas and belts around the garbage dump.

The result is that the green overshadows the trash.

Plastic segregated from the garbage heap is moved further to an NGO-run plastic recycling centre that compresses it and sells it to a road manufacturer and a cement plant.

Indore has been declared plastic-free and several thousand tonnes of plastic bags have been seized from marketplaces and shop-owners.

On May 4 this year, the months of hard work paid off: the city was declared number one in the Swachh Bharat ranking, up from 86 in 2015, prompting the Indian Institute of Management, Indore, to do a case study on it.

IIM Indore 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 the campus but nothing happened for two years.

Singh had it built within two days of his visit to the campus.

Singh estimates that the total amount spent on the drive till May 4 was Rs 60 crore and so far 75 per cent of the work is done.

Pressure on him to sustain what has been achieved is mounting.

Experts in the sector warn that individual led drives and efforts often peter out once the personalities concerned 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 half way. Singh counts this as the “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 delightedly.

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Anjuli Bhargava
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