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May 23, 2012 / Leo Hollis

Who are the Ugly Indians?

It felt as if I was on a secret mission. I had contacted the Ugly Indian (http://theuglyindian.com) three times from the UK before I traveled to Bangalore, but it was only once I had arrived that they reached out to me. I had an emailing waiting for me as I reached the hotel. I was then given a phone number, which did not pick up when I rang. Instead I got a SMS asking me to contact via text. Finally they gave me an address and directions for their next ‘fix up’ the following morning. And so at 8 the next morning  I found myself in the back of an autorickshaw in search of a very unusual type of happening.

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The Ugly Indian are an anonymous group of successful Bangalorean businessmen, from the IT and financial services industry that were fed up with waiting for the local government to make their city clean and liveable. As I got out at my destination, a quiet residential street in one of the toniest neighbourhoods in the city, the first thing they asked was that I not quote any names or give away any identities. Already there was a group of volunteers, employees of the office block facing opposite, who with gloves, picks, shovels were starting to move the pile of rubble and rubbish that was overflowing from the pavement onto the road. In the words of one of the office managers, who was taking a cigarette break, for many of these educated desk jobbers, this was the first manual labour they had ever done. But as they scrapped away in their weekend gear and business shoes, surgical face masks protecting them from the dust, they were already starting to make a difference. They had cleared and cemented a new even pavement with a well crafted curb. They were now starting to talk about planting some bushes and perhaps flowers.

The Ugly India started in anger. While I am standing there, an older gentleman, dressed in a polo shirt and chinos, approached the team to offer his congratulations. It turned out that this was Dr S Janardham, one of the leading  IT pioneers in Bangalore, now retired, and former secretary of the HAL 2nd Stage Civil Amenities and Cultural Association. He told me about the neighbourhood that was one of the first to be built as the city rapidly grew in the 1970s. The houses and streets were extremely well kept, yet there were always problems, such as the site where the rubbish was dumped and allowed to fester. As a leading light in the local association it was his job to collate the trouble spots and force the local authorities to act. When I asked him whether there was ever any response, he raised his eyes to the sky, and with an apologetic smile, made it clear that my question was a bad joke. ‘What was one to do?’ He asked.

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For the Ugly Indian, the solution ‘starts with the 50 feet in front of your house or your office’. The local authorities were clearly not about to change, but this did not give the ordinary citizen any excuse not to take care of the city themselves, albeit with ‘no lectures, no moralising, no activism, no self-righteous anger. No confrontation, no arguments, no debates, no pamphlets, no advocacy.’ [ibid] The project was completely voluntary, and promised nothing more than a morning or two of hard graft. Nonetheless, as one of the group that morning told me as we stopped for a cup of tea poured from a canister on the back of the bike of the chai wallah, the simple act of moving earth, clearing rubble and turning cement ‘sensitizes’ the group to their neighbourhood; it showed that the ordinary citizen could organise change and take control of the places around them.  Just by doing something, ‘That’ problem had turned into ‘our’ problem, which was eventually transformed into our ‘neighbourhood’.

When I finally asked how The Ugly Indian could expand and spread into other cities, the organiser looked at me and shook his head. ‘Many people ask us how they can set up their own Ugly Indian group,’ he reported. ‘I tell them that they don’t need to, they just get on with it.’

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