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Genocide we have collectively allowed, in the name of a #SwachhBharat

Bharat Ratnas: the Clean India army every Indian must meet


Bharat Ratnas: the Clean India army every Indian must meetSUDHARAK OLWE

The inhumanity

  • About 21 million people live in Mumbai, generating 7,000 tonnes of daily waste
  • The city has 38,000 ‘conservancy workers’, which is the innocuous term for those employed in waste disposal
  • The municipality engages 4,357 labourers to clean 54,600 manholes and open sewage lines
  • Across India, there are 12 lakh manual scavengers.
  • Among them, 9,600 deaths are reported each year

The reaction

  • Photographer Sudharak Olwe has published a photo book on their plight
  • Olwe himself belongs to the Mahar caste, and wants to put the limelight on the plight of the workers

It was a 13 May 2014 article in the Mumbai Mirror that brought a definitive change to Sudharak Olwe’s life.

The article, about five sewage workers, described what happened to them when they got into a manhole, at Mumbai’s Usha Nagar Culvert on the Eastern Express Highway, to remove gunny bags from 35 feet under the sewage pipeline:

Sameer, Rajesh and Dhaneshwar were the first to enter the chamber by means of a rope. Ravindra and Panchonan, who followed them, came out citing difficulty in breathing. After waiting for some time, site supervisor Shivanand Chavan called in the cops. By the time the fire brigade personnel entered the chamber, wearing gas masks, Sameer, Rajesh and Dhaneshwar had died.”

Olwe was filled with repulsion. Repulsion for the words ‘chamber’, ‘breathing difficulty’ and worst of all ‘conservancy workers’ – the term used for them, all of which reeked with a pungent odour of legitimising what has got to be the shittiest job in the world.

Remember that time when you stepped on a tiny bit of dog poo and grimaced, running to the nearest tap to have it all washed up? The feeling of that stuff touching even the sole of your shoe left you disgusted.

What does it take to be bare naked and dive into a pit that is two storeys deep and full of sewage waste? What does it feel like for the stinking slush to be entering the pores of your skin, the parting between your lips – no matter now tightly you keep them folded, from entering your nostrils despite holding your breath and from seeping into your tightly shut eyelids and feeling its warm stickiness settle heavily on your hair, submerging you in the dark finality of its hellish void?

Olwe picked up his camera to find out.

A caste fated to live in manholes

It wasn’t sympathy that moved Olwe. It was the more burning question of identity. Belonging to the Mahar caste of Maharashtra, a sub-caste of the Dalits just like Sameer, Rajesh and Dhaneshwar and Mumbai’s 38,000 conservancy workers, Olwe felt that he missed becoming one of them by a wisp of fate. The feeling was overwhelming. “I had to get to know my brothers,” he says.

There are 21 million people living in Mumbai, generating 7,000 tonnes of daily waste. In the western suburbs alone, where Olwe shot most of these photos, this waste comes gushing through 65 kilometres of big nallas, 56 kilometres of small nallas and finally settles into 52 kilometres of box drains, before getting released into the ocean. Some of the drainage lines are deep enough to accommodate a double decker bus.

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The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) currently engages 4,357 labourers to clean 54,600 manholes and open sewage lines manually, using iron rods and spliced bamboo sticks.

“Once they descend below they are disconnected from the world above,” says Olwe.

In his photo book, “In search of dignity and justice, the untold story of conservancy workers”, published last year by Spenta Multimedia and supported by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, he writes:

The workers describe entering a manhole as a descending into hell. Once inside there is nothing but darkness. Anything could happen to the worker. He could slip in the knee-deep water and slime and lose consciousness, or be carried away in the rush of water and waste. And there are poisonous gases – methane, nitrogen, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide – generated by the decaying organic matter. These toxic gases have been the cause of many deaths.

There are two ways the workers check for toxic gases. One is by throwing a lit match stick into the hole. If there are any gases, it will burn and they begin their descend after the fire subsides. The second is by checking for cockroaches, which are not known to die easily. If there are no cockroaches, then they throw in the lit match stick for the gas to escape. Sometimes all tactics fail.

BMC’s numbers suggest that in the last six years, 1,386 conservancy workers have lost their lives at work

Recent numbers revealed by the BMC themselves suggest that in last six years, 1,386 conservancy workers have lost their lives at work.

With the growing number of deaths every year, the solid waste management or SWM department of the civic body has now commissioned a study to assess the reasons for it.

According to a 2007 estimate, at least 22,327 men and women die in India every year doing various kinds of sanitation work. The Planning Commission sub-group on Safai Karamcharis says there could be about 12 lakh manual scavengers across India, picking human faeces with their bare hands. Of these 12 lakh manual scavengers, 9,600 deaths are reported each year.

Assuming they don’t die in a manhole, death awaits outside in the form of various diseases, the most common being jaundice and tuberculosis from the bacteria they ingest. Then there are also liver related diseases that workers suffer from after years of consuming cheap alcohol before they dive in.

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“How else can such a job be done in your right senses? You have to numb your senses to go down there,” says Olwe. It is no surprise then that the average lifespan of a conservancy worker, assuming he does not die at work, is a mere 45 years, by which time the tormented become the tormentors at home. Abusive, full of self-hatred and contempt for life, the bitterness they live with is perhaps more toxic than the sewage they are covered in each day.

When illegal becomes acceptable

Isn’t this work illegal? According to Olwe, the laws banning such work exist only on paper and seem far removed from the complex reality staring at the face of these workers every day.

Take the case of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, which was passed in 2013. The Act prohibits any manual handling of human waste before its decomposition. Importantly, the Act includes unsanitary work done in septic tanks, sewage lines, and railways latrines, roping in thousands of sewage workers of the kind Olwe has photographed under the ambit of the Act.

It also instructs every local authority, cantonment board and railway authority to survey insanitary latrines within its jurisdiction and identify manual scavengers. Owners are to be held responsible for the conversion of all dry latrines into sanitary ones.

According to the Act, current sewage workers would have to be assigned other work on the same payment, an uphill task considering the job fetches them at least Rs 15,000 a month.

It also entitles them to livelihood skill training, concessional loans for a new enterprise and to be provided with a residential plot with financial assistance to build a house – all of which, if not done, would mean penalties that could go up to Rs 5 lakh. This way, the Act envisages curbing open defecation within three years.

Incidentally this is the second attempt at doing away with the shameful practice of manual scavenging. The first, passed in 1993, was called Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. It was hardly implemented. And like this one, things never changed for the 750,000 families that still work as manual scavengers.

It wasn’t sympathy that moved Olwe, but identity. He belongs to the Mahar caste, like Mumbai’s 38,000 conservancy workers

At a manhole level, status quo appears far safer than a total ban. Let’s get real. Who will give a stinking sewage cleaner any job outside of sewage cleaning? Some workers feel scared that the 2013 ban would eventually snatch away their only hope for a livelihood.

The authorities say that when a drain is blocked, it is only a human being who clears the blockages. No long pole or machine will suffice. With such a law, who will dive in to keep the city’s sewer lines unclogged? This is what they ask pointedly.

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“We’ve woken up to this problem late. The existing drainage systems in most metro cities was laid out more than 100 years ago. These drains were designed in a fashion that involved manual cleaning. Changing the sewage system structurally is a mammoth task requiring huge investments that state governments are lethargic to undertake,” says Vivek Gupta, a Rajya Sabha MP from West Bengal and an activist who worked closely on drafting the 2013 bill banning sewage work.

Gupta says the bill, being the prerogative of the state to implement, requires all states to take certain hard decisions sooner or later for the benefit of society.

The stench isn’t easy to get rid of

One morning, when Olwe went to meet the families of conservancy workers at south Mumbai’s Antop Hill, he saw a huge mound of debris and spotted a big crowd gathered around it. Someone was calling the police and there was much commotion. Acting on a gut instinct, he pushed his way through the crowd and stood at the foot of the ripe smelling pile of garbage.

What he saw haunted him for many months after. It was a dead baby. Thrown into the garbage just like a used rag cloth. Yes, it was a girl. And from the look of it, she looked like a healthy baby just born earlier in the day and perhaps thrown just a few minutes ago. The police arrived soon and ushered away the baby. She was taken straight to a hospital and pronounced dead.

The photo and several others in his body of work on conservancy workers went on to win National Geographic’s All Roads Photographers Award in 2005.

Before Olwe went to the United States to receive the award, he had an overarching discomfort in being its recipient. Won’t my photos expose a shameful side of India to the world? That’s when he sought advice from senior photographer Raghu Rai, who reminded Olwe that he was an ambassador of the conservancy workers first and not India.

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Dead babies, rotting street dogs, road kills, sanitary napkins drenched in blood, glass, needles, medical waste, diapers full of shit – there is nothing that these workers haven’t touched with their bare hands and unflinchingly carried over their head to the dumping ground. And Olwe captures it all so vividly that makes one wince.

From a photo of a dead dog being picked up out of a garbage bin to a man neck deep inside a man hole full of sewage to a family of conservancy workers living on a tiny little stairway landing in which they raise their two kids, to the various desperate living and working conditions of these families trapped in this livelihood for generations, Olwe gives the profession the panoramic view it deserves.

So why do they do it?

There is a simple answer. In a country that gives you no choice, you do the work that you are allowed to do.

Babasaheb Ambedkar had preached one way of dissolving the caste system. He told the Dalits to migrate far and wide, inter marry into various castes and get employment in diverse fields of vocations. This way, he envisioned, the Dalits could eventually liberate themselves from the burden of their caste.

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When the Mahars of Konkan, sick of cleaning human shit, gathered the guts to move to Mumbai in search of employment, the entire city’s sewage was waiting to embrace them.

The jobs in all the various categories of conservancy work across India are reserved for the Scheduled Castes. There is 100% reservation in Mumbai for SCs like the Mahars. The job passes from husband to wife to child, for generations.

In the city of Chennai, 95% of the 10,000-odd conservancy workers hail from one particular caste, the Arunthatiyar caste, and are condemned to manually handle the 5,000 tons of solid waste that is produced by the city every day. The same goes for Delhi, Bangalore and other large cities.

Dr Shailesh Kumar Darokar, Associate Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says in Olwe’s book, “We have not let go of our past but simply re-invented it; we are still guilty of perpetuating caste hierarchies and even making them stronger by having caste-based occupations and that too in the public sector.”

In Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade, a worker, ankle-deep in slime in Mumbai’s dumping ground, loses an eye when his pitchfork hits him. Forget compensation, even a cap to protect his head from shit isn’t part of his contract.

In his photos, Olwe makes you realise how the same hopeless conditions are so completely acceptable to us city dwellers. Nobody realises that cleanliness is happening at the cost of gross human rights violations.

The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to which India is a signatory, defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Is this not then a genocide we have collectively allowed, in the name of a swachh Bharat?

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