To hell and back, every day

Jul 07, 2013, 10:55 IST | Deepali Dhingra

Thousands of conservancy workers employed by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai clean tonnes of garbage that is thrown into the city's streets and gutters every day. But it's this section of the society that is by and large ignored by the public. It took a lot of courage for photographer Sudharak Olwe to capture the lives of these people. All this has been presented in the form of a book titled In search of dignity & justice: The untold story of conservancy workers.

The sweepers resume their duties early in the morning 

Often, the workers lose their appetite after working in deplorable conditions 

The families have to make the best use of space available to them 

Clogged gutters are cleaned on a regular basis 

They go about their work regardless of the heat, the rains and the humidity 

Workers often handle hazardous material without any protection gear 

Conservancy workers clean the Chowpatty beach 

Stepping into stagnant, dirty water, these workers often contract deadly diseases 

Most of the workers have little or no education

‘I almost gave up’
What was the reason or reasons you were drawn to taking pictures of these conservancy workers? 
I once visited the locality where the municipality workers resided; there was darkness everywhere but I noticed two families living in cramped sheds of about 10x10 feet. Later, I visited them at work. It was inhuman — having to live and work in the conditions they did. I felt ashamed and decided to capture their lives.  
How have these photographs affected you?
I left this project twice, as I was depressed after seeing the harsh conditions in which the sweepers lived and worked and the way we don’t acknowledge their work. But my friends’ constant encouragement and my conviction about the need for such a body of work kept me going. The images have left an indelible impact on me; I have come to realise how we as Indians lack civic sense and how the caste system still prevails in our work places.
Personally, which is the photograph that has affected you the most? 
I feel all them have a very strong emotional, photographic language, but if I were to pick one, it has to be the one where a man is coming out from the gutter. If hell is geographically present, it had to be there.

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