Photo feature

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

A photo essay on the city's conservatory workers shines light on the deplorable conditions they live and work in.

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 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.”

Once inside, the worker is completely cut off from the world above.

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. 

Clearing garbage is back-breaking work, and the tools of the trade are primitive.

The dump sites generally have a small canteen where the workers can change their clothes or sit during a break.

The mother of three (top right) works as a domestic servant, and lives with her family on just a portion of a staircase.

Huge amounts of garbage can lead to the outbreak of many diseases, including cholera, dysentery, typhoid, infective hepatitis and the plague.

Workers tirelessly do their job, despite the mounting pressure of waste generation.

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.

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.

All photos courtesy Sudharak Olwe.

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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.