Buckets and brooms

To clean up our filthy streets we need more than just one-off clean-up drives.

Taha Kehar October 07, 2012
Buckets and brooms

Twenty-four-year-old Gul Hasan is one of the many sanitary workers who clean the streets of Karachi’s upscale Defence Housing Authority every single day. Clad in an orange uniform, he resembles a detainee at the US-run Guantanamo Bay. That’s fitting, given that he is after all a prisoner to a vicious cycle of poverty and disdain.

“Our profession is held in low esteem by the public,” he complains as he clutches a basket in one hand while holding a dusty jharoo in the other. “We are underpaid and are labelled as bhangis (waste collectors) or jamadars. These labels have become our professional identification and there is no way we can escape the consequences of these cruel typecasts.”

But what really gets Hasan’s goat is the attitude of the people he cleans up after.

“As long as the waste is not inside their houses or scattered across their sprawling lawns, they feel that they have fulfilled their responsibility towards making the environment clean. It never occurs to them that in the process of throwing away their garbage onto empty plots and footpaths, they are polluting the environment even more,” he says.

Indeed, most Pakistanis seem to feel that so long as their own houses are clean, it’s perfectly acceptable for the roads outside to look like garbage dumps. Given our propensity to blame the government for all ills, the concept of civic responsibility or, perish the thought, a citizen-based cleaning initiative never really crosses our minds.

But then, in the aftermath of the Ishq-e-Rasool Day riots, we were treated to an unusual sight: dozens of Pakistanis, shocked and dismayed by the destruction caused by the riots, took to the streets with brooms and buckets in order to clean up after the rioters. ‘Project: clean up Pakistan’ was a sight to warm the most cynical heart but it was, after all, a reaction to a single event. What would it take for such a project to become a permanent part of our lives? And what would it even look like?

In this particular case, looking across the border for inspiration might not be a bad idea. Let’s take the Indian city of Bangalore, where a volunteer organisation that goes by the moniker of ‘Ugly Indians’ has set out to ‘spot-fix’ the streets of Bangalore. As a purely citizen-based crusade to eradicate garbage and filth, it has capitalised on the advantages of social media to generate awareness about its activities and recruit followers. A group of volunteers armed with buckets and brooms and wearing masks and gloves to conceal their identities have actively participated in clean-up drives across Bangalore. In the past ten months, the Ugly Indians have organised over a hundred clean-up drives. By undertaking these community-based projects, ordinary citizens have succeeded in transforming the dirty footpaths and paan-stained streets of Bangalore into dirt-free zones.

Interestingly, the initiative is spearheaded by an anonymous group of dynamic citizens and is not funded or directed by any particular organisation. The only driving force that encourages the Ugly Indians to act responsibly is the desire to see a clean and sanitary India. Using their Facebook presence as a tool for rallying support for its ventures, the organisation aims to develop a positive attitude towards cleanliness and inculcate the need for effective garbage disposal. But don’t be fooled, this goes way beyond just cleaning walls and sweeping streets; the Ugly Indians aim to make a permanent dent in dirt.

Moving beyond mere cleaning and mopping, they placed dustbins labelled as ‘tere bins’ on the grubby streets of Bangalore, streamlining the process of garbage disposal in the city. According to the official website of The Ugly Indians, approximately 150 tere bins are now operating in Bangalore. This strategy is a clear testament to the mission statement of the initiative — Kaam Chaalu, Moonh Band (work more, speak less).

Another technique used to motivate people to properly dispose of waste and keep streets in a sanitary condition is the WonderLoo. These are street urinals which are aimed at preventing people from simply relieving themselves on the walls, a sight Pakistanis are also all too familiar with. Overall, this initiative has proved to be particularly useful in encouraging ordinary citizens to keep their environment clean. But can it be replicated here in Pakistan?

It has been argued that there is very little or no possibility for such citizen-based projects to flourish in Pakistan. This rather pessimistic conclusion has been drawn because of the largely negative connotations held about street sweepers. It is, after all, a task that is primarily the domain of “untouchables” and non-Muslims and thus not something most Pakistanis would consider doing. But despite the lack of enthusiasm shown by most of us, these taboos have been challenged.

Perhaps the most effective attempt to tackle the large heaps of garbage found in the cities of Pakistan was initiated by the Zimmedar Shehri movement. Through this bold initiative, a group of young people took to the streets of Lahore in an attempt to get rid of trash. Zimmedar Shehri is a testimony to the fact that relying on municipal authorities and the government of the day is futile. Positive change must begin from the ordinary citizens and must be fuelled solely by determination.

And yet, one of the major impediments for such citizen-based street cleaning campaigns is that they do not occur as frequently as they should. On rare occasions, teachers have encouraged primary-schoolchildren to pick up litter on the streets by organising street-cleaning drives. While this extra-curricular activity enables young children to understand the importance of collective responsibility, it imparts a lesson that is quite easily forgotten simply because it is not repeated.

Despite these problems, some organisations have worked laboriously to inculcate a desire among the youth for a cleaner and healthier Pakistan. Green Volunteers, a not-for-profit organisation which describes itself as a platform that “covers many aspects of social service,” is one such initiative. It recently organised an Anti-Littering Drive at Sea View, Karachi, to commemorate Independence Day.

But can this clean-up drive be considered a successful attempt to encourage citizens to accept their responsibility or is it merely a one-off initiative triggered by patriotic feelings?

According to Saba Ali, a student who attended the clean-up, it was a bit of both. “Patriotism definitely fuels the desire to improve the community,” she explains.

“The Anti-Littering Drive showed that we, the people, have to play our role in bringing change,” says Muhammad Khurrum Khan, one of the organisers at the event. “Through this platform, we were trying to convey a message to the general public that we can bring about this change if we unite for a special cause. Moreover, we were trying to get the attention of the government so that all the necessary steps are taken to ensure that streets are cleaner and infrastructure is maintained.”

Khurrum, for one, feels the Ugly Indians initiative can work here in Pakistan, but that it will take a lot of work and staying power. “We need focus, determination and active participation from the community to pursue a citizen-based campaign which is akin to The Ugly Indians initiative. The most difficult task is to get people interested. Clean-up drives need to be publicised so that more people are interested in joining the initiative. The more manpower we have for such campaigns, the more effective it will be.”

The turnout at the anti-littering drive mainly consisted of young people who were determined to make a difference. With their gloves, masks and trash-bags, they proved that picking up litter is not the act of a menial worker, but rather the collective responsibility of every citizen.

So what can be done to ensure that such efforts are not just flashes in the pan?

“In order to enhance such citizen-based initiatives, we should be properly equipped to face up to the challenges,” Khurrum says. “This can only be done by building awareness and informing the general public about the harmful effects of pollution. This way we can encourage people to actively participate and play their role as citizens.”

Fatima Siraj, a BBA student who attended the clean-up drive, is already convinced that this is the way to go. “The anti-littering drive gave me hope,” she says. “In the absence of government initiatives, it is entirely up to the citizens of Pakistan to make a positive change. We need to take ownership of our neighbourhood, our streets, our cities and our country and the power of such campaigns is that they force you to take ownership for your responsibilities.”

And yet, I cannot help but wonder if clean-up drives can really reduce the heaps of waste on the streets of cities across Pakistan. After the fibre glass dustbins installed in various locations in Karachi were stolen earlier this year, the idea of introducing dustbins in every nook and corner of the city appears futile. If any attempt to initiate a community-based venture to eradicate waste from the streets is to succeed, it must be with the support and participation of ordinary citizens and, most of all, it must be a sustained initiative. So if anyone out there wants to put their money where their mouth is, it’s about time you drop the bharam and pick up a broom!

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 7th, 2012.

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Parvez | 11 years ago | Reply

In most write ups I notice that it is observed that the government is not going to do anything so we must do it ourselves if we need change. Is this not defeatest ? Is this not the easy way out ? Why can't we stand up and demand our right after all the government gets paid for this. This is exactly the attitude the government 'babu' wants us to adopt.

Parvez | 11 years ago | Reply

There is a lot of money being made and a lot more to be made in gargage management and recycling. It needs much more promotion that what exists today. Instead of opening cup-cake & coffee joints getting into recycling could prove more lucerative and satisfying.

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