Changing behaviour, one chai at a time

by Morgan Campbell

A common theme emerging within UnderReform case sites is a sentiment expressed by stakeholders: Smart City designation does not automatically make a city or citizens smart. Implementing a bike share station is ineffective if people don’t understand how to use it; smart roads are not smart if two-wheelers still drive on the footpath to avoid road congestion. This later point speaks to the larger question of how to change negative behaviours and what needs to happen alongside infrastructure implementation.

During the 2018 National Stakeholder workshop, UnderReform team members were encouraged to incorporate Indore into the research because it is thought to be one city in which things are being done differently. Our recent study visit to the city allowed us to learn more about the city’s Swachh Bharat campaign and solid waste segregation1 as evidence of policy initiatives and coordination leading to effective behavioural change in residents.

Photo by Farhan Khan on Unsplash

The case of Swachh Bharat

Like the Smart City Mission, Swachh Bharat is a “Mission” and is associated with Prime Minister Modi’s first political term. It is best known for its (at times contentious see The Hindu and India Spend) drive to eliminate open defecation in urban and rural areas through building toilets, often with financial support through NGOs and various government funding schemes.

Indore is one example of a more comprehensive approach to Swachh Bharat, addressing the issue of solid waste management in the city. The problems of solid waste were understood by the Municipal Corporation – how to segregate waste, where such segregation needed to happen (e.g. in the home), how to collect waste, and how to dispose of it. The question was how to implement solutions.

During Indore’s Smart City proposal process, citizens were invited to express their opinion on which issues needed tackling, and solid waste was given a priority. Through an emphasis on converging funds coming from the centre, State, and Municipal Corporation, the local government launched their Swachh Bharat Mission as a pan-city initiative under the Smart City.

Throughout our stakeholder interviews, respondents recognised that new technologies such as ePlatforms and GPS tracking were deployed in order to bring about the coordination of vehicles, the tracking of waste and labour needed to oversee bin pick up. However, they nonetheless emphasised that the success of the Mission has very little to do with the technology and very much to do with a comprehensive effort among political leaders and government to bring the citizens of Indore into the entire process. This was primarily achieved by focusing on education and positive awareness building, coupled with instilling pride in the effort to make Indore cleaner. Some key takeaways include:

Political and bureaucratic buy-in

For residents to get on board it was first necessary for them to see unified support among politicians and administrators. The fact that a significant amount of funding came from the Municipal Corporation’s direct budget to be put into Swachh Bharat demonstrated to citizens a level of sincerity to implement on behalf of local authorities.

Trust in these leaders

Stakeholders cited the importance of having dynamic leaders to implement significant change. Although behavioural change doesn’t take place over night, if change isn’t visible among leaders, or if it seems slow-moving or invisible it becomes more difficult to effect change in people. As one interviewee explained, “If we want to bring about change in the public at large in the entire city, it can’t be through some hotel meeting or conference room. Daily triggering is required with good behaviour.” Because the timeframe was short – about three months in its initial application, – people were able to quickly see what was changing, how and why. Several examples were given in of Commissioner at the time riding in the waste disposal trucks, visiting the waste treatment plants early in the morning, or ward committee leaders going door-to-door to educate families within their constituencies.

Segregate at the source

It should be mentioned that several inputs and much expertise were taken from both local and international experts of waste segregation. It was quickly understood that for waste management to be successful in the city, collection had to be from homes (as opposed to dumping in a communal area nearby) and segregation of wet and dry waste had to occur within the household. However, to get the program running, the first year only focused on door-to-door collection; segregation at the source occurred during the second year of the Mission. Equally important was ensuring that existing waste, including that which had been dumped in public areas, was properly disposed of so residents could also see a cleaner city.

Training and respect

Another challenge was to foster respect for sanitation workers and a sense of collaboration between workers and the public. A situation was recounted in which a citizen became angry with a sanitation worker for being woken up early every day. Arguing that he would throw his waste “wherever he wanted” he threw a stone at the worker who then fractured his leg. Rather than lodge a report and bring the police into the matter, the Commissioner and some Swachh Bharat volunteers came to the house and asked to have a chai with man. They calmly explained the reason for the Mission and why the sanitation worker was coming daily to the house. The man, realising his mistake, eventually became one of the greatest ambassadors for the Swachh Bharat cause.

Why social change is more transformative than infrastructural change

There is an undeniable correlation between physical and social change in the built environment. During our trip to Indore it was evident that the pride associated with the Swachh Bharat mission was about physical transformation of the city—such as in the clearly marked and evenly distributed bins in all public places—as much as the social transformation. Upon reflection, many stakeholders and residents expressed delight and surprise over the fact that the will to change, once initiated, wasn’t as hard as expected. Now that is certainly a smart lesson.


1 Solid Waste Management (SWM) is the umbrella term for waste collection services provided on behalf of the municipal authority to the public. It is akin to garbage or trash collection in other countries and frequently entails segregation between dry and wet waste wherein wet waste is usually food waste.