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.

This article was originally published on