Every morning in the narrow, leafy, car-lined lanes of Delhi’s Greater Kailash III, four women can be seen rebuking anyone caught littering. Construction workers are handed ultimatums to clear debris off roads, sweepers instructed on which street corner to tackle first.

“Request that house to move their car so that you can sweep under it,” Shayla Chopra called out to a sweeper, before turning into another lane to check if it had been swept.

Chopra, 37, and her “teammates” – Bhawna Mehra, Anita Bhattal and Nitika Kochhar – have taken up the responsibility of keeping the nine lanes that make up a block of their residential colony clean. The initiative first began on a WhatsApp group, as most plans these days are wont to.

In May, a WhatsApp group created by Yatin Thakur, a resident of the neighbourhood for the past 30 years, began discussing the rash of thefts in the area, but soon raised other problems – particularly the neighbourhood’s lack of cleanliness. Mehra, Bhattal and Kochhar (later joined by Chopra) decided to take up the onerous task of cleaning their area.

Clean-up work in E Block's local park, overseen by Bhawana Mehra. Image courtesy: Shayla Chopra.

Chopra, a dentist at a private clinic in Greater Kailash II, wakes up 5 am on Mondays, dresses her children for school, finishes other household chores, and begins her rounds by 9 am, ensuring that the lanes are clean. After this, she works at her clinic for a seven to eight hour shift.

She navigated the streets slowly, between the expensive parked cars, and pointed at the plastic bottles and wrappers flung around the posh neighbourhood. “We just had this cleaned yesterday,” she mumbled.

Apart from lone sweeper provided by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the women employ five sweepers to clean the neighbourhood. The workers are procured from Labour Chowk, an area in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk where daily-wage labourers gather in search of work. “Technically, there are three MCD sweepers with one sweeper responsible for three lanes, but two have been absent for more than a month now,” said Chopra. Hired for Rs 400 per day, the labourers employed by the women are paid Rs 100 over an MCD employee’s per diem, and work from 9 am to 5 pm.

Like Chopra, her other team members are all working women. Kochhar, 50, works as a consultant at a human resources firm in the Savitri Cinema Complex and 38-year-old Mehra works as the head of production for women’s wear at Satya Paul label in Gurgaon. When it is their turn to monitor the lanes, they juggle their schedules to accommodate a few hours of supervision in the morning and then again after work.

The sweepers called in from Labour Chowk are hired at Rs 400 per day for a 9 am to 5 pm work day.

It has only been a month since Chopra, Kochhar, Bhattal and Mehra have taken over monitoring the locality’s cleanliness, but they have made progress: lampposts that once emitted a dim, yellow glow have been fitted with bright white lights, the local park has been cleared of sludge and plastic waste and the local market complex no longer gathers mounds of plastic waste, packaging material and debris.

“The colony was in a pathetic state and the Residents’ Welfare Association was in no position to help,” said Thakur, explaining why it became necessary for residents to take up the time-consuming and often thankless job. “In the past three weeks, there has been an increased awareness among residents about cleanliness. Neighbours who fought over parking are cooperating with each other.”

“A lack of funds keeps the RWA from doing much,” Thakur added. “They ask for Rs 300 from each household but only 20-25% actually contribute.”

The damaged tarpaulin covers in the local market have been replaced with new ones. Image courtesy: Shayla Chopra.

Thus far, the women said they have found the RWA to be forthcoming. “They are doing their best to help,” said Chopra, who recently also met an MCD official to discuss security, street lighting and sanitation. “The official assured us that things will be back on track in the next two days.”

The lack of cooperation from residents is still a hurdle for the women. While on their daily drive around the colony, Chopra and Mehra politely, yet firmly remind neighbours to clear their garbage – Mehra is the bad cop to Chopra’s good cop. In response, neighbours are often rude to the women, particularly when they ask for funds, or request people to get their water tanks cleaned to prevent mosquitoes from breeding.

While some households and construction workers have begun to cooperate – the women are aware that invoking the MCD’s ire to get people to comply is an empty threat.

Shayla Chopra talking to a construction supervisor about the removal of debris from the main road.

Predictably, the biggest challenges are money and manpower. The project is entirely resident-funded and getting people to volunteer is hard.

“Ninety per cent of the residents can easily afford to give Rs 1,000 per month,” said Mehra, adding that some felt uncomfortable giving their money to someone not from a certified organisation. “Some won’t even take care of the trash in front of their houses. But the biggest problem is that nobody is willing to supervise the labourers or even just provide them with tea and biscuits.”

Kochhar added, “We see if they have eaten on time, stay hydrated and, most importantly, that nobody speaks to them rudely or mistreats them in any way. Residents watch us and think, let them do the work.”

Madhumita Mitra, who has been in the area for two years and has contributed for the initiative, said: “They are doing the work that the RWA and the MCD should be doing, yet some of the residents have started putting pressure on them to get more work done. It is not their job to get everything fixed.”

At present, around 30 to 35 families in the neighbourhood, including those of the volunteers, have been contributing regularly. On the basis of this steady inflow of cash, the four have been able to hire a supervisor and hired around 35 private trucks to transport the debris and trash.

“There were a couple of days when someone had sponsored around 15 labourers,” said Chopra. “On both those days we got lots of work done.”

Image courtesy: Shayla Chopra.