Invisible warriors

Many of Mumbai’s army of sanitation workers lead a pitiable existence. Risking their lives and health every day to keep the city’s drains and gutters unclogged and flowing, they often have to endure stigma and discrimination. Photojournalist Sudharak Olwe has captured the lives of these warriors in an acclaimed series on conservancy workers in India.

Once inside, there is nothing but darkness and slime. The worker is cut off from the world above and risks are everywhere: he could pass out from inhaling toxic gas, slip in the waste and lose consciousness, or be carried away by a rush of sludge.
The garbage that the workers rake out includes animal carcasses, food leftovers, biomedical waste and toxic chemicals.
Manek reports for work at 6am. He is always worried that the supervisor will mark him absent if he is late and give his job to a temporary hand. This happens all the time. Manek first sweeps the main road and then a gulli (a narrow lane between buildings). Manek has cleaned this gulli for 15 years. He wears a helmet because he has to watch out for waste dumped from the windows above: fish guts and scraps, beer bottles, hot water, kitchen rubbish...
The work is backbreaking. The tools of the trade are primitive. Hands pick up the garbage. Shoulders carry it. Jadhav (foreground) does not like to talk about his work. He nods when asked if his shoulders hurt.
Two-three families — a total of 20-25 people — in a single room is a common feature.
One of the ‘perks’ of the job is getting a kholi (a house). These two families — one sitting and the other standing — live in a 10 feet-by-12 feet room. This is not uncommon. In many a kholi, a line drawn on the ground demarcates each family’s space. The two families in the picture have not spoken to each other for years due to a dispute over the house’s ownership.
Kamble’s wife works as a domestic servant. Sometimes her memsaheb (madam) gives her food to take home. Home is a portion of the staircase. Kamble and his wife raise three children here.
Hiraman’s wife refused to be photographed. She is forever at odds with her husband. She kept threatening to leave him. He keeps telling her to shut up. It is not likely that Hiraman’s wife will leave. It is more likely that Hiraman, who is visibly shrinking, will die soon. In which case the municipal corporation will consider her a ‘pity case’ and give her Hiraman’s job.
A group of widows of sanitation workers. Remarriage is out of the question. They would lose their jobs and their kholis.