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WHERE DARKNESS REIGNS

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

Mumbai-garbage-sweepers
Sudharak Olwe
These men are fighting a war every day.
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
Once inside, the worker is completely cut off from the world above.
Sudharak Olwe
The work requires no special skills, just a pair of arms and legs and the courage to descend into hell.
Sudharak Olwe
Among the dangers of working inside the hole: passing out from inhaling toxic gas, slipping in the slime and losing consciousness, or being carried away in the rush of water and waste.
Sudharak Olwe
The city’s western suburbs have 65 kilometres of big gutters, 56 kilometres of small gutters, and 52 kilometres of box drains.
Sudharak Olwe
Clearing garbage is back-breaking work, and the tools of the trade are primitive.
Sudharak Olwe
The dump sites generally have a small canteen where the workers can change their clothes or sit during a break.
Sudharak Olwe
The mother of three (top right) works as a domestic servant, and lives with her family on just a portion of a staircase.
Sudharak Olwe
Huge amounts of garbage can lead to the outbreak of many diseases, including cholera, dysentery, typhoid, infective hepatitis and the plague.
Sudharak Olwe
Twenty hard strokes of his heavy wooden broom are what it takes the sweeper to clean one step of this overhead bridge.
Sudharak Olwe
Workers tirelessly do their job, despite the mounting pressure of waste generation.
Sudharak Olwe
The garbage that the workers rake out includes animal carcasses, food remains, steel wires, hospital waste, jagged pieces of wood, pipes, stone, broken glass, blades.
Sudharak Olwe
As trucks keep coming to the dumping grounds, they have to be unloaded whether it’s in the mid-day sun or in the pouring rain.

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