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Photos: Mumbai’s 30,000 unsung heroes are languishing in filth and squalor

Sudharak Olwe
These men are fighting a war every day.
By Shelly Walia
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In the wee hours of every morning, more than 30,000 sweepers quietly pour out across Mumbai.

Conservancy workers—as they are formally called—are employed by the city’s Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to clear the gutters, collect and transport the waste to dumping pits, and sweep the streets.

Their work is essential. India’s bustling and ever-expanding commercial capital is now home to more than 12 million people, who produce more than 6,500 tonnes of garbage every day.

Typically, these sweepers are Dalits—the lowest and the most underprivileged of India’s oppressive caste system—and live in deplorable conditions, deprived of basic necessities, including proper clothing, sanitation and education.

“They are ignored by all of us,” Mumbai-based documentary photographer Sudharak Olwe told Quartz. Over the past year, Olwe has chronicled their lives in an attempt to put pressure on the corporation to “make their working and living conditions more humane and just,” he wrote on his website.

Titled In Search of Dignity and Justice, Olwe’s photographs capture the city’s underbelly, where darkness reigns and hope is scarce.

“When men go on wars, they are given gallantry awards,” 49-year-old Olwe explained. “These men are fighting a war every day—with diseases, garbage, inhuman conditions, but nothing comes of it.”

Sudharak Olwe
The city’s western suburbs have 65 kilometres of big gutters, 56 kilometres of small gutters, and 52 kilometres of box drains.

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