About 30,000 conservancy workers, also known as sweepers, are employed by the Greater Bombay Municipal Corporation. These workers collect the city’s garbage, sweep the streets, clean the gutters, load and unload garbage trucks and work in the dumping grounds.

All 30,000 of them are Dalits, belonging to the lowest rung of the Indian caste system. They have little or no education. Without exception, all of them despise their work. They are either completely ignored or looked down upon with disgust by the rest of society. They have to work in the midst of filth, with no protective gear, not even access to water for washing off the slime. Most of them are alcoholics and live in poverty, in dismal housing. They are perpetually in debt despite earning what, by Indian standards, is a decent wage of US $152 per month. The workers abuse their wives and children. And when the husbands die (usually at a young age), the despised job passes to the widows. The despair continues.

Few years ago, quite by accident, I descended into the ‘living hell’ – a phrase which quite accurately describes the life of these workers. What I saw shook me to the core of my being. That thousands of men and women were living and working in such dehumanizing conditions filled me with rage and shame.

I wanted to know every thing about these workers. I wanted to know them not just as the ones who cleaned the city’s underbelly, but also as brothers and fellow human beings. I wanted to know their names and what they thought about themselves, their work, their families and their employers. I also wanted to know how they felt about the citizens of Mumbai. And, at a very personal and important level, I wanted to know what they thought about me – one of their own – who had escaped their living hell. This is how I came to bear witness. There was an overwhelming need in me to understand how they could bear their lives, given how they were compelled to work.

Then came a decisive moment when bearing witness and hearing their stories was not enough. I wanted to put myself at their service, using my only talent to make visible these invisible brothers and sisters and to give voice to their ‘never heard before’ stories.

When they gave me, permission to ‘shoot them’, their generosity moved me to tears. I explained in detail what I would have to do in order to tell their stories and told them again and again to reconsider. They said that they did not hope – much less expect – that anything would change for themselves. But if what I was doing could bring about even the smallest change in the lives of their children, they would be eternally grateful to me.

My rage and shame, their faith and trust – these are the forces have impelled over one year to search for dignity and justice, to tell the untold story of conservancy workers.

One of the most important things that I want to do concerns the very role of the photographer himself/herself. I feel strongly that it is not enough for me to bear witness and to document reality. I must also initiate a process of reflection and action. Especially among two key groups.

The first group is the Corporation, which employs the workers. Through my images, I want to dialogue with the corporation in an attempt to work out what it can do to make their working and living conditions more humane and just.

I also want to direct the call for reflection and change towards the public at large. I want the citizens to see the workers and to acknowledge their presence and contribution. I want to create images that drive home the point that without this workforce, life in the city would be rife with ill health, disease and even death.

Only then will I be true to my vision of photography, which is to give a call to action, to urge fellow human beings through my pictures to change the picture.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of conservancy

Each and every one of us creates waste. We do not deny this fact. In Mumbai, we create 7,000 tonnes of waste every day. We know that such huge amounts of garbage can pose a serious health risk and that it could lead to the outbreak of many diseases including cholera, dysentery, typhoid, infective hepatitis and the plague.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of conservancy

Twenty hard strokes of his heavy, wooden broom are what it takes parmar to sweep one step of the overhead bridge. Sweeping tiny leaves and gathering them in to a small pile requires thirty to forty brisk strokes of the broom. Gathering and pile making has to be done at a quick pace, before the leaves scatter away in the wind. Thirty strokes a pile, ten to twenty piles on a single tree line pavement. How many strokes of a broom does that make in a day?

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of conservancy

Workers tirelessly do their job despite the mounting pressure.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of conservancy

The garbage that the workers rake out includes animal carcasses, food remains, steel wires, hospital waste, jagged pieces of wood, pipes, stone, broken glass and blades.

IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY AND JUSTICE-THE UNTOLD STORY OF CONSERVANCY

Manek reports to work at 6am. He is always worried that the supervisor will mark him absent and give his duty to a temporary worker. This happens all the time. It is an easy way to make a little money on the side. Manek first sweeps the main road and then around 11am, the supervisor directs him to a house gulli. In this gulli which he has cleaned every day for the last fifteen years, Manek has had boiling rice water, packets of fish shells, beer bottles flung upon him. Once a sanitary napkin landed on him. His co-worker used her broom to wipe the blood off his face. But they did not get out of the gulli. It had to be cleaned.

IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY AND JUSTICE-THE UNTOLD STORY OF CONSERVANCY

Clearing garbage is back breaking work. The tools of the trade are primitive. So the body is put to work. Hands pick up the garbage. Shoulders carry it. There are scars where the wooden pole digs into Jadhav’s shoulders. Jadhav does not like to talk about his work. He nods when asked if they hurt.

07OLWE

The western suburbs where these pictures were taken has 65 kilometres of big nallas, 56 kilometres of small nallas and 52 kilometres of box drains. Some of the drainage lines are deep enough to accommodate a double decker bus.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of conservancy

All this is done to make them feel hopeless about themselves.

09OLWE

After an hour or so when the worker comes out, he keeps shivering. This work requires no special skills- just a pair of arms and legs and the courage to descend into hell.

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Once inside, there is nothing but darkness. The worker is totally cut off from the world above, anything could happen to him – he could pass out from inhaling some  toxic gas, or slip in the slime and lose consciousness, or be carried away in the rush of water and waste.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of coservancy

No human being should have to work in such demeaning and dehumanizing conditions, but the fact is that 30,000 human beings do.

IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY AND JUSTICE-THE UNTOLD STORY OF CONSERVANCY

The price they pay – losing a little dignity every day. Bit by bit, till none is left. And they begin to see themselves as garbage, worthy of nothing, not even a little respect.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of conservancy

The trucks which keep coming to the dumping grounds have to be unloaded in the mid-day sun or in the pouring rain.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of conservancy

There are five dumping grounds on the eastern and western edges of the city. The stench is unbearable. The dumping grounds are now filled to capacity. In fact, they are overfilled and this makes the worker’s job even more physically demanding  and even more hazardous.

IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY AND JUSTICE-THE UNTOLD STORY OF CONSERVANCY

None of the dumping ground sites have as much as small canteen or even a room where the workers can change their clothes or sit during a break.

IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY AND JUSTICE-THE UNTOLD STORY OF CONSERVANCY

One of the ‘perks’ of the job is getting a kholi (a house). These two families – the one sitting and the other standing – live in the same 10X 12 feet room. This is not an uncommon feature. In many a kholi, a line drawn on the ground demarcated each family’s territory. These two families have not spoken to each other in eight years. The fight is about who the rightful owner of the kholi is – the widow or the brother.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of conservancy

Two to three families, around 20 to 25 people in a single room is a common feature.

IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY AND JUSTICE-THE UNTOLD STORY OF CONSERVANCY

Kamble’s wife works as a domestic servant. Sometimes the memsaheb (Madam) gives her food to take home. Home is a portion of the staircase. Kamble’s wife raises three children here.

IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY AND JUSTICE-THE UNTOLD STORY OF CONSERVANCY

Hiraman’s wife refused to be photographed as she had nothing to do with any friend of the raakshas (devil) who gives her Rs.150 to run the house for one month. Hiraman kept asking her to shut up. She kept threatening to leave him. Her fury was fierce. It is not likely that Hiraman’s wife will leave. It is more likely that Hiraman who is visibly shrinking will die soon.

IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY AND JUSTICE-THE UNTOLD STORY OF CONSERVANCY

Shasi Tambe’s wife returned to her father’s house three years ago when she could not take the beating anymore.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of coservancy

Remarriage is out of  question for the widows of these workers as they would lose their jobs as well as their kholis.

IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY AND JUSTICE-THE UNTOLD STORY OF CONSERVANCY

By the time the worker reaches home, alcohol has turned him into a tormentor – a crazed demon who abuses and beats his wife and children.

in search of dignity and justice-the untold story of conservancy

As a citizen and fellow human beings we can change the picture? There are 1.7 million of us in the city of Mumbai. The population has risen steadily over the years. Can the workforce be expanded to cope with the increase in the waste being created? Is it possible for us to reduce the waste we create? Can we look at the workers without mistrust and disdain? Can we acknowledge the contribution they make to our health and survival, at the cost of their own health and survival?

 

Bio:

Sudharak Olwe has been a photographer for the past 20 years, he has over the years worked with the Times of India, Indian Express, The Pioneer, INDES etc. and has freelanced with Financial Times – London, the European Press Agency(EPA) and has Exhibited his work in Amsterdam, Portugal, Japan, Germany, US, Sweden and Bangladesh.

http://www.sudharakolwe.com

 

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  • Avya San

    Horrific.

  • Vaisakh

    Is there a way to help? Pls advise if there Are there any initiatives being run now to get the corporation’s attention which one can join
    - relocate the workforce away from the scavenging work
    - urgently redefine working conditions – with safer, cleaner equipment / protection in the interim
    - bring more accountability on citizens / households / corporate and society at large on amount of waste generated and disposal mechanism (taxes, recycling units etc)

  • Jayita Roy

    My God

  • Vinita

    Touching and horrifying !!

  • Leo Fanny Orque

    Very truly, a touching story. Hope I can get more reflections and also to reflect on.

  • Mukul Dube

    Fine work: it shows a reality that moves the viewer.

  • Puttaraj Choukimath

    Visible story of ‘Beautifying People’… !!
    We should feel them all while shopping and while weeding out too..
    The concerned authorities and public have a great deal of work here, in getting dignity to the lives of such people.
    Appreciating their patience. Thanks to authors and photographers.

  • Suraj

    Sudharak, a commend to your photographic profession. Apart from that, you seem to ignoring the fact that these are human beings to who clean our excreta and carry it on a daily basis. It is not about acknowledging their extremely inhumane work, or reducing the waste on our cost, or looking at them with mistrust and disdain; it is to rage a lobby against such dehumanising slavery.

    We as 1.7 millions can do nothing better than demanding to stop such employment in every strata. Then only the question of attending the undefended and victimised fellow brothers and human beings will pacify the glory of hell.

  • Sumeet Singh

    It is truly a moving sight to see all this happening under our very own noses . When we see the horrifying conditions in which some of our fellow brethren live – we are grateful to God for giving us whatever we have . Its always advisable to be charitable and helpful whilst we can

  • Shiva Shankar

    This is the way it is everywhere in Hindustan. Millions of people from ‘scavenging’ castes whose ‘duty’, prescribed at birth by religion, it is to clean. It is only Ambedkar-thought that will finally liberate.

  • kompella sarma

    We are in 60+ Yrs independent country;
    we had given reservation into every area for these communities. I wonder still
    why most of us blame caste, religion and Hindustan. If not they someone else
    has to do this dirty work, if you see in UK and USA only Indians do these jobs,
    they are not from one caste. we common man creating that garbage, I don’t
    understand what all of us want, I feel we need persons to work all areas, we
    should not discriminate based on work, give due respect and see all are same
    and equal. Again I want to raise one point it is not other caste cause this,
    all humans are in such illness mind set. Mayawathi how much she did to dalits,
    instead of each elephants in park, one house can construct for family. But she did
    not ready for it, she is not from upper caste. See madhu koda he took complete
    money but not ready to do anything to tribes, we know how African blacks used,
    there is no caste system exists. Like that many examples. In end I want to
    suggest not blaming one community for other community illness. We humans are
    main problem.

  • Jatina Thakkar

    Hats off to this article!!

  • Curiosity

    it is heart wrenching to read through … thanks for sharing

  • jitendra

    Time to take action on this issue

  • Manesiro Shaheri Maretizo

    Thus problem of scavenger work needs urgent solution. Gandhi ji individually did scavenger work and forced Kasturba to do so in South Africa and perhaps here he did sometimes in his ashrams.

    But so far no social solution to menial household work and to scavenger work has been seriously thought.

    The civic cleanliness work will be responsibility of civic body who will hire daily the sanitary worker whose wages will be much higher than other type of labourers, these hired worker will wear a dress that will hide their identity and will also give them full protection and with the help of gadgets and automation, they will do the sanitation work. Thus any one in more need of money will join this work force and for it even may go to nearby cities to hide his identity.

    The families traditionally doing scavenger work will move to respectable jobs. Only individuals in need will join the sanitation work and it will have nothing to do with family and individual’s future career.

  • Doraisamy Kumar

    really moved me. thanks for your effort to bring this to reality

  • Sanghmitra Acharya

    The conservancy workers clean up the roads which most of us consider as our right to litter; they collect our garbage for disposal; and they immerse themselves in the manholes to release the choked drains as if they are taking a holy dip in the conventional Ganges! For most of us they do not even come within the periphery of our thoughts! In other countries engaging in ‘polluting’ jobs is like doing any other work and often endows with certain safeguards against the hazards involved. Unfortunately in India, Municipal bodies, the largest employers of these workers, have failed to comply with minimum safety measures required for these workers. Equipments supplied for the cleaning and scavenging are inadequate and unyielding. The big truck that collects the daily garbage is often overloaded or improperly loaded and is invariably leaving a trail of filth behind; the equipment to clean the manhole fails to deal with the nature of filth we generate and stack in our drains which enter the bigger drain arteries. They are so few and so heavy that they obstruct more than help them work. Constant exposure to the dust, dangerous gases and excreta is foolproof prescription for chronic and acute illnesses of various kinds. These Conservancy workers are different from their counterparts in other parts of the world. They are not considered to be the part of society; they are the outcastes- the ones beyond the lowest most position in the social hierarchy which prevails only in India. Therefore, the concern needs to be two-folds- universal access to health care in the light of social discrimination experienced by specific vulnerable groups- women, children and youth; and those engaged in conservancy (sewerage and allied) works among the urban poor. The enquiry should be done at two levels- explore
    the women, children and youth as an entity; and explore those engaged in conservancy work. What are the constraints in accessing and providing health care, and the existing disparities? Can the best practices for providing better access and provisioning of health care to all be within the scope of the proposed work. The second level needs to include and enquiry into the remunerations and work conditions; safety gears and disability compensation and rehabilitation; retirement benefits; and housing to those engaged; and the understanding of the factors which perpetuate the engagement of youth in such jobs; mechanisms to divert the youth from joining the sewerage and allied works; provide incentives for continuing education and finding alternative work; will also studied. There is also a need to learn about the health, disease and safety issues; educational opportunities; alternative means of livelihood; and legal and constitutional measures for the safeguard of the workers engaged in sewerage and allied works. Sanghmitra Acharya.