On 12 November, two men cleaning a sewage tank in Varanasi died of asphyxiation. A news report said that the men — both employed as manual scavengers — had descended into the tank without any safety gear. It is believe they inhaled the toxic gases in the tank, before falling unconscious into the sewage water below, and drowned.

The incident comes a little over two months after five men died in similar, horrific circumstances in New Delhi. (It must be noted that none of these five men had been hired to clean sewage, but forced to enter the sewer where they met their deaths, by the contractor who employed them.)

Sudharak Olwe conservancy workers_1

Conservancy workers — manual scavengers employed with urban municipalities — clean (often with their bare hands and few or inadequate tools) excreta and other waste, blocked sewers and drains. Since January 2017, one person has died every five days, on average, while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across the country, the Indian Express reported.

Reporting on the same figures — released by the National Commission for Safai Karamacharis (NCSK) — the Guardian decreed that sewage cleaning was “one of the country’s deadliest jobs and most insidious form of caste discrimination”; most manual scavengers/conservancy workers are Dalits.

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This, despite the government of India’s outlawing of the practice of manual scavenging in 1993, under the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act.

For over two decades now, acclaimed photographer and Padma Shri awardee Sudharak Olwe has been documenting the lives of the sewage cleaners in Mumbai.

The first set of these photos, depicting the conservancy workers of Mumbai, were shot in 1999. Olwe revisited the same places and people in 2018. Nothing had changed in those 18 years.

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“By change, I mean there have been no equipment upgrades, no scientific method brought to bear,” says Olwe. “Nobody is fighting or researching how to end this problem of manual scavenging.”

While caste dynamics have a role to play, Olwe says he cannot understand the apathy towards conservancy workers, even amid reports of their deaths.

“Why are people are not ashamed of someone dying in the sewer lines and gutters? And if some seven or more people dying in these sewage pipes doesn’t make any difference then we really are insensitive. Nobody takes these matters to court; nobody questions the corporation; nobody questions the government," he says, sounding anguished.

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Olwe asks why there has been barely any education on garbage segregation in Indian cities and villages over the past 60 years, why there is a dearth of toilets. “I understand there is a scarcity of water but why have we not thought of alternative measures? Why do people of a certain community clean human excreta and garbage? Why are all the citizens of this country not participative of this process?” he asks.

A Times of India report states that around 52 million tonnes of solid waste is produced in the towns and cities of India, annually. In Mumbai alone, around 11,000 metric tonnes of waste is produced per day. The sewage waste is either chanelled to the sea via the sewer network, or it is dumped into the creeks or nullahs in and around the city. To handle such a high volume of waste, there are reportedly just nine safety suits for the conservancy workers. Of these, many aren’t functional; once they’re worn in the sewers, dirty water and waste seep into the suit, making it unusable.

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“Going into one of these drainage systems is like entering a double-decker bus,” says Olwe, who has worked closely with the conservancy workers and their families over the years. “Once inside, there is nothing but darkness and filth. Dead animals, rats, blades, glass shards, food items, human excreta… they touch it with their bare hands and take that filth out. You feel terrible — there’s a terrible sense of undignified living.”

Compounding this is the lack of facilities above ground. “There’s no medical van, there’s no ambulance, there’s no system that can help a worker come out. The gases down there are so toxic that one would collapse. The equipment and machinery that the government provides are of no use to them. They would rather go without any of that equipment as they believe their chances of survival are higher,” says Olwe.

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And yet, there are those who seek out the job. “The major perk of the job is getting a kholi (a room) in a city where housing is unaffordable,” says Olwe. “Anyway, you have stigmatised the work and left it only for a particular section of society. These workers don’t get the attention of the Corporation [the BMC] unlike its other employees.”

Recalling an incident from the past, he explains how this vicious circle of manual scavenging persists within the same community, “When I started the project, Kashya was one of the workers who I met in the first week. In the second week, he died. I met his family, his wife and children who used to live on a small lane in Grant Road in a small lane. They didn’t have a house; it’s a big struggle to get a room even with a Corporation job. Finally, the wife got Kashya’s job.”

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Olwe, through his photography project on the conservancy workers, strives to give them a voice and bring them some semblance of justice and dignity. “It was a very disheartening time when I was working on this project… I used to carry a lot of negativity and sadness back home after shooting these pictures; it was pathetic to see people from my own community suffer like this. They die at a very young age, the places they live in are dilapidated buildings; there are no medical facilities; water is not available and yet they are doing such important work every day. They are almost like soldiers but they hardly receive any acknowledgement for that, let alone respect,” Olwe says.

Apart from documenting the lives and struggles of the conservancy workers, Olwe started a collective named Photography Promotion Trust (PPT) in 2005 in collaboration with a few other photographers from India and Europe. They have been organising photography workshops for the children of the conservancy workers for the past 10 years.  They also run a diploma course in photography in association with Xavier's Institute of Communication (XIC), Mumbai. As a result, many of those children have become photographers now.

“We just wanted to break this vicious circle and didn’t want them to go back to this mode of doing the same work from grandfather, to father to sons and so on,” Olwe explains. “I hope we have been successful in doing so for the past few years.”

— All photographs by Sudharak Olwe

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