Not a pretty picture

Sudharak Olwe
18 February 2004

A Mumbai street cleaner up to his neck in a drain (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

There are 30,000 conservancy workers employed by the Greater Bombay Municipal Corporation. These workers pick up our garbage, sweep our streets, clean our gutters, load and unload the garbage trucks and work on dumping grounds.

Without exception, all 30,000 of them despise their work. Most of them are alcoholics and perpetually in debt despite getting a salary of Rs. 7,000 (US$ 155 / €121 / £82) per month. The men abuse their wives and children. On the death of their husbands at a relatively young age, the job passes to the widows as a “pity case”. The despair continues.

Not a pretty picture is a photo study of the living hell that constitutes the life of a conservancy worker. It seeks to understand how and why an entire workforce gets so shrouded in hopelessness and despair that the workers come to despise not only their work but themselves as well.

How much do we, the citizens, contribute to the dehumanisation of these workers? Do we realise that life in the city without this workforce would be a life of ill health, disease and even death?

Not a pretty picture urges us to “look” and “see” the conservancy worker in a more humane and just manner.

Each and every one of us creates waste. We do not deny this fact. In Mumbai, we create 7,000 tonnes of waste every day. We know that such huge amounts of garbage can pose a serious health risk, that it can lead to outbreaks of disease, including cholera, dysentry, typhoid, infective hepatitis and plague.

That is why the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) employs 30,000 conservancy workers to dispose of the garbage.

Although clearing garbage requires no special skills the BMC pays these workers Rs.7,000 a month. But we all know how lazy they are. And so irregular. And they are drunk most of the time. Not a pretty picture indeed!

Mumbai street cleaner with broom (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

Twenty hard strokes of his heavy, wooden broom is what it takes Parmar to sweep one step of the overhead bridge. Sweeping tiny leaves and gathering them into a small pile requires 30 to 40 brisk strokes of the broom. Gathering and making the pile has to be done at a fast pace, before the leaves scatter away in the wind. Thirty strokes a pile, 10 to 20 piles on a single tree-lined pavement. How many strokes of the broom a day?

Sweeping a pedestrian bridge, Mumbai (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

Cleaning the beach, Mumbai (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

Cleaning the beach, Mumbai

Manek reports to work in a galli (narrow lane). He is always worried that the supervisor will mark him absent and give his duty to a temporary worker. This happens all the time. It is an easy way to make a little money on the side.

Manek first sweeps the main road and then, around 11am, the supervisor directs him to a house galli. In this galli, which he has cleaned every day for the last 15 years, Manek has had boiling rice water, packets of fish shells and beer bottles flung upon him. Once a sanitary napkin landed on him. His co-worker used her broom to wipe the blood off his face. But they did not get out of the galli. It had to be cleaned.

Cleaning a lane, Mumbai (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

The western suburbs, where these pictures were taken, have 65 kilometres of big nallas (drains), 56 kilometres of small nallas and 52 kilometres of box drains. Some of the drainage lines are deep enough to accommodate a double-decker bus.

Once inside, there is nothing but darkness. The worker is totally cut off from the world above. Anything could happen to him - he could pass out from inhaling toxic gas, slip in the slime and lose consciousness, or be carried away in the rush of water and waste. Clearing garbage is back breaking work.

Cleaning drains, Mumbai (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

Inside a drain-pipe (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

Inside a drain-pipe

A street cleaner up to his neck in waste (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

A street cleaner up to his neck in waste

Cleaning drains (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

Cleaning drains

After an hour or so, when the worker comes out of the drain, he is shivering. Yes, it is true - this work requires no special skills. Just a pair of arms and legs and the courage to descend into hell.

A street cleaner after emerging from the drains (Photo © Sudharak Olwe 2003)

Continue to Part 2 of Sudharak Olwe’s photo essay.

All photographs © Sudharak Olwe 2003. Not to be used without written permission.

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