Image Source:openshutterstudio |Photographer: Sagar Kaul
Each day Mumbai generates enough sewage to fill four-and-a-half thousand Olympic sized swimming pools. To assist in the proper disposal of such massive amounts of sewage, Mumbai’s sewer workers remove rubbish and unclog sanitation lines with their bare hands.
This is the weekly reality of nearly 30,000 people in the city of Mumbai known as conservancy workers. They are almost entirely from the Dalit caste group.
Indian documentary photographer Sudharak Olwe has captured remarkable images of these workers performing their unsavoury task.
“Without exception, all of them despise their work,” he says.
After rubbing themselves with coconut oil, many workers descend into the manholes with little more than a helmet. This unfortunately reality exists despite laws and court orders to ensure workers are supplied with gloves, masks and other protective gear.
“We just apply oil, there is no safety gear,” sewer worker Sunil Pawar told Al Jazeera last month. “Also there is poisonous gas, but this is our job.
Not only is it filthy, unhealthy and socially embarrassing for those involved, it is also very dangerous. A study conducted by the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences found 80 per cent of sewer workers died by the age of 60. Even more concerning was the finding that in Mumbai, on an average, 20 sewer workers died each month.
A mixture of poisonous gases like methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide develops in the underground manholes which can leave workers unconscious if they stay down there too long. The poisonous fumes have also been linked to long term health defects including diabetes and tuberculosis, experts say.
Often before they enter, workers conduct a test to determine the amount of oxygen in the manholes. They lower a candle into the sewer system, and only if there is enough oxygen to keep the flame burning, will they enter. Like the tools they use, this method nowhere meets the expectations of the ‘City of Dreams’.
Along with the unsanitary conditions, things like broken glasses, blades and even syringes lurk in the pitch black underground. Any cuts and grazes are almost a certainty to become infected.
Those who carry out these jobs say they are resigned to their fate due to their lack of education. But a casteist society, an indifferent administration and political class also aid to the continuation of the dehumanisation of the sewer workers.