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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?



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.



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  • Avya San


  • 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.

    • dmp

      “…in UK and USA only Indians do these jobs.”
      I can’t speak for the UK, but this is entirely untrue in the US (although this will vary by city and region, as there are more Indians in some neighborhoods, more Caucasians or Latinos in another, etc). Sanitation workers have to take a very competitive exam, the wages are pretty good, there is health insurance and other benefits… So, a huge variety of people apply for these jobs. But, you’re right, I think the core problem in India is the caste system.

  • 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.

  • Iva Manasi

    The photograph and this piece really moved me! I do agree that this work has to be done by someone in each society. but in the Indian society there are 2 very big problems:
    1. A particular caste (in case of India) has to do this work, purely based on birth. This is social injustice! It is easy to be apathetic when you do not belong to this section and that is becoming the problem with a large portion of our country. Because they don’t belong to “this caste” they don’t have to worry about the condition of scavengers as it doesn’t and will never affect them. If each of us does our bit, hopefully and with time, the conditions for the workers will improve.
    2. The inhumane conditions of work for these workers. In most countries there is a minimum health and safety requirement for any work, which clearly isn’t the case in India. The life of an Indian is not treated with respect even by our system. Installing cleaning facilities (shower, toilet and a seating area) so that the workers can clean themselves and rest in between and after work should not be a hard task. As you pointed out most of the rubbish is carried out on bare shoulders. This need not be the case, we are advanced enough for some (a lot) of this work to be done more mechanised. And also, given the hazardous nature of their work and the small life spans of these workers, their salaries should be increased and better health care for these workers.

  • John Nordlinger

    This photo exhibit inspired me to go to Film School. Sudarak is amazing!

  • Neo

    Absolutely amazing. Great work.

  • Ritesh Joshi

    Really Horrific!!!..the only solution to this problem is the automation of garbage collection….train the same folks on automatic tools and let them do the job as they can’t be educated overnight..

  • Pradnya Malandkar

    Horrifying and touching post, but the last paragraph was a bit disappointing. ‘can we reduce the waste?’.. umm yea, that ideally should be done, after all, we see all those nitwits throw trash on the roads ignoring the presence of dustbins and then blaming the government for our unhygienic surroundings. So yes, definitely it’s the right thing to do but, will this action alone get these people out of their hell? NOPE
    ‘Can we look at the workers without mistrust or disdain?’ – Now thats the proper solution, but a little correction should be made here. It’s not the workers, it’s their so called ‘caste’ which is looked down upon. I mean, there are other jobs out there that do not require education, for example, you need not have any education to work as a security guard at certain places in India, or to paint your house. So why do they just work in the gutters and dumps? Say thank you to our vile caste system. Why don’t these people educate themselves and make a better living? Say thanks again to our caste system. Think about it, if no one is going to hire you no mater how educated or talented you are, why bother? I wish the article made this fact a bit more clearer. (not to mention there are upper and lower castes in the lower castes too 🙁 such a bummer)
    If any thing is to change, all of us need to look at them as humans and part of our society rather than people belonging to the lower caste and destined for this crappy work.

    And why wasn’t anything written about the pic with the dead child thrown in the garbage? Horrible to see that female infanticide is done so openly in our society despite being illegal and inhuman.

  • Rahul D

    Automation will help

    • dmp

      Certainly, but first the government and businesses have to actually care about these people. They don’t. The caste system is alive and well.

  • FreedomFighterz

    Amazing Photographs ,And Thanks For Spreading Awareness on Dalit Discrimination ,Hats Off ,Take A Bow

  • Shivam Sharma

    I am really shaken.

  • arvind

    Hats off sudharak for your wonderful work

  • Sudarshan Potbhare

    One cant just see n move ahead ..we need to take pause of n overall stuation n first of these brothers n sisters …
    Sudarshan @annamrita .org

  • Kathryn Foster

    Wow. I was really affected by these photos. I am from America, I have never seen these kinds of things here. This is really really sad. Isn’t there anything that can be done for these people? It may be ignorant on my part, but couldn’t the city take over this function and make these kinds of jobs more desirable? For instance here in NYC which is also a megacity, we have the sanitation department who does all these kinds of jobs. Most people do not like to work in sanitation but those who do choose to do it of their own will and are well provided for. They have unions and rights; why can’t such a great city as Mumbai do it too?

    • sanitation work in India is not choice, it is a force by caste system that assigns a profession according to birth dictated by manusmrithi, the manu code. So today India filth cleaned by the dalits, who are designated as lower human beings in the caste ladder by Hindu religious text. i am conducting a academic study on the institutionalization of caste system in modernity. Hi Kathryn, i would like to have more detail about sanitation work in NYC, can you send your email, my email is – navayan@gmail.com

      • Kathryn Foster

        Hi Karthik,
        I am not sure if I can be much help for your study. My email is Katiegirl998@yahoo.com; probably the best source to get information about the sanitation work in NYC is to look online at the NYDOS website. Also I am sure unions have websites where you can read stories of workers etc.

    • dmp

      All good ideas, Kathryn, but, as you say…you’re from America. I don’t see how India will ever become a world economic force when their government allows all manner of hazard and squalor like this. The educated, who could form a large and influential middle class in their own country, will just continue to emigrate and the insurmountable gap between rich and poor will continue as always. These societal ills start and are perpetuated at the top, not at the bottom.

  • Dr.R.K.D.Goel

    I have seen more than this in Vadodara behind my house where a Congress activist / slum goon established a Dholi Kui Slum on Biggest MaiaKaans of Vadodara from 1990 resulting logging of rain water from 1990 in whole city from 1990 with losses of propetues and health effect to both Slum dwellers and residents residing on both the side of the Natural Storm Water Drain (KAASNS IN GUJARATI) you have seen how we are residing thi place from1996 to 2015? Thanls to Corrupt Politicians of Both Congress and BJP Councilors / MP /MLA=====Now you should apriciate my efforts of 20 years against the elite class of vadodara and Slum goons to fight with?

  • प्रभात गुप्त Prabhat Gupta

    I was `sent a link to this article by Shree Shiva Shankar (ex IIT Madras) and I must say that this brought tears to my eyes. I have seen dirt and squalor in parts of Meerut where I was born but to imagine that in “modern” city Mumbai, where I grew, this still goes on is shameful and shocking.

    Shiva ji is fighting this abhorrent practice and we all should fight this too by doing some steps that I believe will help.

    1.) Not calling them dalits / low caste. As a matter of fact they are real Devis and Devtaas देवी और देवता for they take all the burden.

    2.) Make our family and friends also aware of this. You will be surprised how many people close to you will not know and in some cases be in denial about this. Please do not sweep this under the carpet.

    3.) If there is a society / organisation that takes up education / reform of these people, please contribute by Body, Mind and Money…tan man and dhan. This will break the cycle for the next generation.

    Finally I also request that this also not be made to look like a “Hindu” problem as there are many Hindus who simply do not approve of such behaviour towards any human being.

    Please make this a point to be discussed on social media and in Hindu temples so that we just do not sit idle in from of Idols but actually do something worthwhile.

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