It's 9:30 pm and closing time at Devaraja Market in Mysuru. All things look bright and beautiful under the many tiny incandescent bulbs. This maze-like, vibrant marketplace is over 120 years old. Packed like sardines in a can, the shops here offer almost everything and the colours and scents are a treat to senses accustomed to air-conditioned malls.
The air is rich with the scent of ripe bananas, handmade incense sticks and copious blossoms of rajnigandha and marigold. As storekeepers wrap up, they leave behind a deluge of all that they can't market the next day - plantain leaves, vegetables, garlands and lots of paper and plastic. By closing time, the narrow walking path between shops vanishes in a chop and in its place rises a tidal wave of waste. Stepping on clean ground becomes a task, but that's a scene that changes in a few hours.
Soon after daylight breaks the following morning, men and women in green overcoats issued by the Mysore City Corporation (MCC) dot the place. Brooms in hand, they sweep the area before the city wakes up; the cleaning continues all day long. According to their supervisor, Nagesh M, these men and women work on a contract basis for the MCC in three shift. The Bengaluru-based company he works for has a contract for the ever-busy market area. Six supervisors oversee the work done in three shifts by 76 cleaners, or pourakarmikas as they are referred to in local parlance.
Two trucks stand by behind the market, ready to take the garbage to one of the nine garage disposal units in the city. On regular days, says Nagesh, these trucks make five or six trips, but on occasions like Eid, Sankranti or the state festival of Dussehra, there's a minimum of 10 trips between the two trucks.
Not far from Devaraja Market, Mohammad Ghouse is on his way to work at 7 am. His reporting place is the Palace of Mysore on Sayyaji Rao Road, where he and his white horse cheerily stand in line behind those who have already arrived. But before he queues up, he spots the camera and slows down. He never gets too tired for pictures, says 70-year-old Ghouse. He has been offering tourists, mostly foreign, horse-drawn tonga rides for 55 years. As he proceeds to join the line, Ghouse's horse adds to the 400-odd tonnes of garbage that Mysuru tackles on a daily basis; Ghouse claims that there are about 40 tongas active at any time in the city.
Twenty-something Mahalinga quickly brooms away the droppings into a neat pile. He doesn't wear the tell-tale green overcoat that others do, but this is his spot and he's here every day, 6 am till afternoon, sweeping. Mahalinga is not on the MCC's rolls; his father is. He doesn't offer a reason as to why he regularly takes his father's place, but the Rs 20,000 his family gets from the municipality is reason enough. Who holds the broom doesn't seem to matter.
On the outside, Mysuru looks like just another city, except that it's comparatively cleaner than most Indian cities. On the inside, Mysuru works like a well-oiled industrial machine. All the units in the system gel together to keep the city clean, and this has been the case much before Mysuru topped the Swachh Bharat rankings.
Mysuru is closely followed by two of its next-door Kannadiga neighbours, Hassan and Mandya, in the list that evaluated 476 cities. Soon after the rankings were announced in August, the most often asked questions included how clean Mysuru really was and what made it the "cleanest city in India". But for Mysoreans, there's a flux of mixed feelings on ground zero as local headlines regularly scream about the city "drowning in garbage".
In the residential locality of Gokulam Extension, where old bungalows and stand-alone houses shadow their private gardens, chalked rangolis welcome visitors. Diligently and freshly drawn every morning after front yards are swept, these rangolis hint at the well-rooted cultural influences the city boasts of. In one of these many houses where rangolis are a must lives R Chandra Prakash, a retired professor of commerce.
As an active member of Mysore Grahakara Parishat, a citizen-led body in Mysuru that looks into environmental and civic activism among other city-related issues, Prakash stresses on two factors that make Mysuru the city it is. "We've always had a history of cleanliness with the royal families always advocating it. In the 1930s and 1940s, the prince would personally step out for regular inspection, and that would keep the administration on its toes," he says. That tradition continues, he says, adding, "When all of us keep the road in front of our houses clean, it really helps the bigger picture". When people see good habits, they follow suit with good habits, opines Prakash. But Mysuru is not as clean as it can be, he quickly adds. "It is clean, but only in comparison to other Indian cities."
Here in Gokulam, pourakarmika Krishna, who works on contract for MCC, talks of how wages are an issue. "Mysuru topped the rankings, but what did we get out of it? There's barely anything left by the time our salaries reach us," he says. The difference in wages is stark: while the average wage for a pourakarmika on MCC's roles is Rs 20,000, outsourced labour gets about Rs 9,000 after deductions, something that Prakash believes is sure to hinder the city's progress. According to 2011 Census, Mysuru has 2,297 pourakarmikas for a population of 914,919. Of them, 1,645 are outsourced.
It's clear to see that an active civic society drives the city. While Mysore Grahakara Parishat regularly works alongside the MCC, a volunteer-led initiative called "Let's Do It! Mysore" works on a regular basis to keep the city unclogged. An off-shoot of the "Let's Do It! World" movement that began in Estonia in 2008, the Mysuru chapter brought 30,000 Mysoreans out on the roads in 2013. They divvied up the 65 wards of the corporation among themselves and armed with masks, gloves and brooms, filled up 191 lorries of garbage in a matter of five hours. Shiva Shankar of the Mysuru chapter shares how the number of volunteers fluctuates but the drive hasn't lost steam. They've already had about 80 cleanliness drives.
A thorough Mysorean at heart, Prakash wants to preserve the city's old-world charm. "This city is frozen in time," he rightly points out as we drive by heritage buildings - there are over 200 of them and Mysoreans are protective of their legacies. So are comparatively newer residents of the city, like MCC Commissioner Chandrashekhar G Betsurmath who is driven towards giving Mysuru a facelift. The underground drainage system, which has a century-old history, says Betsurmath, has really helped Mysuru. Following closely on the heels of educating civic workers, his focus is on making the city plastic free - MCC has already become a designated plastic-free zone.
"We get a lot of tourists because of the city's rich heritage, and we want to take this image and make it better. Our goal is to make Mysuru the Ivory City of India, just like Jaipur is the Pink City," he says. As a step towards this, all commercial hoardings and posters in public places have been taken down since these often prove to be eye sores, says Betsurmath. Furthermore, he talks of how plans to segregate waste at source are already in motion. But this is a bit of a challenge, admits the commissioner.
"We've given dustbins to poor families so that it's easy for them to segregate wet and dry waste, but most of them end up using the bins for storage," he says. The parameters for the Swachh Bharat rankings, besides solid waste management, include open defecation, something Mysuru has never been known for, even in the absence of quality number of public toilets.
Betsurmath believes the credit for Mysuru's ranking goes primarily to the well-functioning solid segregation plants in the city. Out of nine plants, eight are running, the biggest being the Excel plant. An unbearable stink emanates from this waste management plant, and understandably so. Out of the 400-odd tonne of waste generated by the city every day, 180-200 tonne comes here. A good part of the system works primarily towards segregating wet and dry waste. The focus is also on producing quality manure, which then rakes in monetary profits for the authorities.
While this is an enormous operation with high-powered machinery taking on the city's reject, the segregation process is seen more easily at the Kumbarakoppalu plant. A permanent display here is 24 vessels with tags on them - plastic, rubber, wood and aluminum are just some of the labels here for visitors and pourakarmikas to refer to. But right next to where the segregation happens, a woman serves freshly-cooked rice on steel plates, clearly showing the health hazards diligent pourakarmikas are up against.
"Everything is working just fine now," says Prakash, "but if something isn't done soon to better their situation, Mysuru won't be so swachh anymore."