In Search of Dignity and Justice 1 Favorite 



Oct 1 2013


Mumbai, India

In Search of Dignity and Justice 

About 30,000 conservancy workers, also known as sweepers, are employed by the Great Bombay Municipal Corporation. These workers collect the city's garbage, sweep the streets, clean the gutters, load and unload garbage trucks and work in the dumping grounds. 

All 30,000 of them are Dalits, belonging to the lowest rung of the Indian caste system. They have little or no education. Without exception, all of them despise their work. They are either completely ignored or looked down upon with disgust by the rest of the society. they have to work in the midst of filth, with no protective gear, not even access to water for washing off the slime. Most of them are alcoholics and live in poverty, in dismal housing. They are perpetually in debt despite earning what, by Indian standards, is a decent wage of US $152 per month. The workers abuse their wives and children. And when the husbands die (usually at a young age), the despised job passes to the widows. The despair continues. 

In this photo essay, Olwe photographs these workers and gives us an insight into their lives. By capturing their lives in photographs that can be circulated, he not only humanizes these workers but also exposes the rampant casteism in India, almost 70 years after independence. 

Olwe says, "I wanted to know everything about these workers. I wanted to know them not just as the ones who cleaned the city's underbelly, but also as brothers and fellow human beings. I wanted to know their names and what they thought about themselves, their work, their families and their employers. I also wanted to knww how they felt about the citizens of Mumbai. And, at a very personal and important level, I wanted to know what they thought about me - one of their own - who had escaped their living hell. This is how I came to bear witness. There was an overwhelming need in me to understand how they could bear their lives, given how the were compelled to work. 

 When they gave me permission to 'shoot them,' their generosity moved me to tears. I explained in detail what I would have to do in order to tell their stories and told them again and again to reconsider. They said that they did not hope - much less expect - that anything would change for them. But it what I was doing could bring about even the smallest change in the lives of their children, they would be eternally grateful to me." 

Posted by Sahil Bhattad on