In all of my travels, I've found few things as inspiring as working with the Ugly Indian, a self-conscious movement aimed at cleaning up the streets of India. These passionate volunteers prove that with collective effort and communal responsibility, change is possible, necessary, and sustainable. Inspired by Gandhi, the people on the front lines of the movement are living out the motto: "Stop talking, start doing."
The Ugly Indian is a grassroots movement erupting all over India. The anonymous movement aims to clean up the streets through artwork and community investment. This is a Bangalore neighborhood near the BMC College of Engineering before an Ugly Indian cleanup initiative, also known as “spotfix.”
This is the same spot after a dedicated group of neighbors worked together to clean up the garbage. The Ugly Indian movement is sweeping across the country. Since it started in 2010, more than 400 spotfixes have been done. The impact is contagious.
This iconic red fence is a sign of a spotfix. The Ugly Indian started in 2010 when a bold community experimented with a soiled wall. They painted a red band at the bottom and planted flowers in front. To their surprise, the wall stayed clean. Sixty other cities in India have also started Ugly Indian cleanups. Organizations like Youth for Change have adopted similar models. Even other countries like Bahrain, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia are emulating the movement and embracing the positive change.
Many people from all backgrounds get involved in the cleanup projects. This homeless woman and her son live along the wall and appreciate the newly cleaned space. They are some of the most vigilant when it comes to guarding the area.
The Ugly Indian’s name is jarring on purpose. Embedded in the self-conscious name is both a personal acceptance of a condition, and the responsibility to change it. The volunteers responsible for this transformation are ordinary people. To ensure the mission focuses on the work and not the individuals, a policy of strict anonymity is encouraged. About 60% of volunteers join on the spot when they see what is happening, while the other 40% are generally recruited over Facebook or email.
Spotfixes are often decorated with some traditional Indian chalk art, as a blessing to the new space. The Ugly Indian movement is based on two philosophies: the ‘broken window theory’ and the ‘tragedy of the commons’. They insist that if people take charge of their own spaces instead of waiting for someone else to do it, sustainable change will happen. It also means people will be less likely to create or add to the problem if the space is already clean.
This local man is keeping vigil at a newly cleaned location, with Hindu deities behind him. The deities dissuades people from urinating on the wall. After the Ugly Indian does a spotfix, volunteers from the community guard the location from 6am until 8pm for two weeks. This encourages the new behaviors and investment they are trying to foster. Since the spots were once garbage dumps or public urinals, it takes time to redirect old habits. The volunteers make it clear that this is no longer a place to dump trash until the community gets the hint. As many as ninety percent of the spotfixes remain clean.
The hardest part of a project is starting. The Ugly Indian movement gets people up and at the problem before overthinking it, or waiting for someone else to take care of the mess. Their motto is “Kaam Chaalu Mooh Bandh” in Hindi and “Baayi Mucchu Kelsa Hacchu” in Kannada. This means “Just Work, No Talk” or "Stop Speaking, Start Doing." The focus is on the results, rather than who achieves them.
Teamwork is a necessary part of each spotfix. Without the help of others, each spotfix would take weeks. Instead, it can take as few as two hours on a Saturday morning.
Each location provides its own paint by pooling the collective donations of a neighborhood. They use an inexpensive, powder-based paint that is also environmentally friendly. Each spotfix tends to cost less than 3,000 rupees, or 60 USD.
Part of the momentum of the movement is the image of the red fence across different cities in India. This man is finishing the final part of the fence.
A volunteer stands proudly with a bucket of paint used to put the last touches of the pattern on the wall. This is not an official NGO, and volunteers run it all. As one volunteer said, "If you want to dream big, you have to start small. If one person takes a street, with all of India's population, it wouldn't take much."
Gandhi's famous words appropriated on a wall bring to life the power of the Ugly Indian, and their efforts to create positive, lasting change. It is a challenge that echoes beyond the borders of India.
Photos by author