India

Descent into hell: Mumbai's dehumanised sewer workers

Sewer man Image copyright Sudharak Olwe

About 30,000 conservancy workers, also known as sweepers, are employed by the civic authorities in the Indian city of Mumbai.

The workers, all of them Dalits - formerly known as untouchables - collect garbage, sweep the city streets, clean the gutters, load and unload garbage trucks and work in the dumping grounds.

And "without exception, all of them despise their work", says photographer Sudharak Olwe who documented their lives over a period of a year.

Image copyright Sudharak Olwe
Image caption Mumbai generates 7,000 tonnes of waste every day
Image copyright Sudharak Olwe
Image caption Workers often have to get down inside the drains and some of the drainage lines are deep enough to accommodate a double-decker bus. After an hour or so when a worker comes out, he keeps shivering. The work requires no special skills, just a pair of arms and legs and the courage to descend into hell.
Image copyright Sudharak Olwe
Image caption Parmar uses his heavy, wooden broom to clean this bridge - sweeping tiny leaves and gathering them in to a small pile requires 30 to 40 brisk strokes. Gathering and pile making has to be done at a quick pace, before the leaves scatter away in the wind.
Image copyright Sudharak Olwe
Image caption The garbage the workers rake out includes animal carcasses, food remains, steel wires, hospital waste, jagged pieces of wood-pipes, stone, broken glass and even blades.
Image copyright Sudharak Olwe
Image caption Garbage clearing is back-breaking work and the tools of the trade are primitive. Hands are used to pick up the garbage and shoulders to carry it. Jadhav, who has been doing the job for many years now, does not like to talk about his work. There are scars where the wooden pole digs into his shoulders. He nods when asked if they hurt.
Image copyright Sudharak Olwe
Image caption There are five dumping grounds on the eastern and western edges of the city and they are filled to capacity. None of the sites have as much as a small canteen or even a room where the workers can change their clothes or sit during a break.
Image copyright Sudharak Olwe
Image caption One "perk" of the job is getting a small house, but many of these homes have to be shared between two or more families. A line drawn on the ground demarcates each family's territory.
Image copyright Sudharak Olwe
Image caption Hiraman's wife, who refuses to be photographed, is furious with him because she says he gives her just 150 rupees a month to run the house. When I visited them, she kept threatening to leave him and he kept asking her to shut up. He appears to be visibly shrinking and is unlikely to live long. If he dies, his wife will be considered a "pity case" and get his job.