Waste of a Good Idea

7 Jul

THIS post was part of the TimeOut Mumbai cover story of the June 17-30, 2005 edition, “Local Heroes: Small people making a big difference.” See my other post in this story here.

Juhu Beach, Mumbai

For eight years, George Gopali “picked up the broom” and kept Juhu Beach clean. Four years ago, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation decided to replace Gopali’s efforts with beachcombers, or beach cleaning machines. While the machines do help in clearing human-created waste, ecologists complain that they also pick up small crabs and other creatures, disturbing the beach’s eco-system. Gopali describes his experience of working with the BMC, and his disappointment at being dumped at the altar.

“I wanted to do something for the city that has given me so much. My father was a manager in the BMC, so right from when I was a child, he would tell me that BMC employees don’t work because they know they’re going to get paid anyway, but private companies deliver. So I said to myself, when I grow up, I’ll do something different. I saw that we had beautiful beaches, why not keep them clean? It’s easy to complain, but no one wants to pick up a broom. I picked up the broom.

“I have a housekeeping business, George Enterprises, which cleans the premises of building societies. In 1992, I wrote to the municipal commissioner Sharad Kale, who liked my idea of cleaning up the beach. But he said that the BMC could not pay me directly, since the union would have objected. He told me, ‘There are 15 hotels around the beach, they are direct beneficiaries. Speak to them.’ So I asked the hotels to give me one room’s rent per month as payment. This added up to Rs 90,000 a month. Initially, I invested my own money, but two years later, the BMC gave me three hoarding sites, which I rented out to advertisers.

“I used local boys as labour—drug addicts, boys who came to Mumbai to become film stars but slept on the beach, boys from the slums nearby. At first it was a struggle, but the BMC supported me. However, the hotels withdrew from the scheme after four months. Yet, I headed the cleanup for eight years, from 1992-2000. Then, BMC officials started thinking that I was making millions out of the cleanup, so they tendered the process. I got name-fame, so they didn’t want to pay me anymore. They floated a global tender with a minimum deposit of Rs 25 lakh to clean the beach with machines. So only big people with big money could bid for it. Now if I want to bid for a tender, I’d have to invest Rs 50-60 lakh. I’m not going to do that—the BMC are not good paymasters.

“The BMC has been thinking about getting beach-cleaning machines for the past 15 years. After my grand success, they began thinking, why not? I say, why? We have so much labour. Even the sieving of the sand was done with jaalis that we made ourselves. If you have that much money, put it into dustbins, benches and amenities for children and senior citizens! Plus there’s a high level of corrosion in the machines, so they don’t even last.

“We all say, ‘mere Bharat mahaan,” but we Indians are not proud of our country. People spit, the BMC head office stinks. I even sent a proposal to clean the BMC office because it stinks. The Juhu beach cleanup benefited the hoteliers, the public, the kids. One man can make a difference. You just need someone dedicated.”

As told to Jayati Vora

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