Images that Create Change

Moved by the images of horrific working condition of Conservancy Workers in Mumbai, Industrialist Ratan Tata initiates “Mission Dignity” to tackle issues of health, education and waste management.

Images that create Change

In Search of Dignity and Justice
About 38,000 conservancy workers, known as “Safai Karamcharis” work in the underbelly of the city. They toil away in horrific working conditions to keep the city safe and clean.
With little or no equipment, the workers work in knee or neck deep sewage, use their bare hands to pick up trash which includes poisonous materials, biological waste, glass, metal and anything and everything that constitutes as trash. With absolutely no segregation of waste at the local level, everything is dumped at dumping spots in the city clogging narrow alleys and roads. All to be picked up by these workers during their early morning work hours.
20 years ago, photojournalist Sudharak Olwe came across the plight of these workers, meeting them and seeing first hand the horrific life they lead, he decided to shoot their pictures and tell the stories of these people who had no voice. Ignored and sidelined from main stream society, these workers have never been acknowledged by the public. With no sense of self worth – standing amidst filth and waste they have died inside their living bodies.
Making it his life’s mission to support and help the workforce and their future generations. His essay on the lives of these workers titled “In search of Dignity and Justice” was released in the media and met with massive public outcry and protests in support of the workers that led to authorities putting in more resources and policy for them.

Mumbai's Garbage Problem

The financial capital of the country is wrought by problems of garbage disposal, bad civic sense
and no respect for the workers who keep our city clean and us safe from diseases.

No Civic Sense

No local segregation of dry, wet or biomedical waste coupled with bad civic sense has made the city dirtier than it should be.

Dismal Sewage Infrastructure

A sewage infrastructure which is over 100 years old has to handlee the massive amounts of waste generated every day.

Full Dumping Grounds

All 4 dumping grounds of the city have reached full capacitty years ago and yet they are burdened with more trash every day.

Public Apathy

People have no sense of thankfulness or gratitude to the thousands of workers toiling away for us.

The photo-essay travelled the length and breadth of the country and was also exhibited internationally in London, Sweden and Washington. (Photo essay has been linked below)

One of PPT’s first projects was to help the children of these workers. It was decided that in order to truly help the workforce it was necessary to destroy the evil inter-generational cycle of passing down these jobs. As one worker told Sudharak when he asked how he could help “We can no longer be helped but please help our children, don’t let them do these jobs as I did and so did my father”.

Realising that his camera and photography were things that helped the workers tell their story, Sudharak decided to put the camera in their hands. Photography Workshops were organised for the children on a regular basis which has now led to an astonishing story of long term engagement and commitment of these children to break the cycle and take up a different path. Read about it here: Photography Changing the lives of Conservancy Workers Children.

The essay had now also taken up the form of a photo-book with stories of families, their plight, portraying their homes and hopes for a better future. Published by Lok Vagmya Group and released by fire brand Dalit Poet the late Namdeo Dhasal. The book made its way to many important places, libraries, people and eventually into the hands of India’s great modern philanthropist.
This collection of photos by Sudharak Olwe has been an eye-opener. It has captured and brought to our consciousness, the plight of a group of people we seem to have relegated to a collective blind-spot. Conservancy workers live and work in our own city. They are as much citizens as we are. Yet, we do not seem to be aware of their very existence and, least of all the plight of their condition. We should strive to eliminate manual conservancy work in Mumbai and work dedicatedly towards rehabilitation, retraining and redeploying the worker, with dignity.
I am grateful to each and every one of the 38,000 conservancy workers of Mumbai for their ceaseless service. Sudharak Olwe has followed their lives for over a decade with sensitivity that he has brilliantly combined with his skill of photography. Through this poignant and hard-hitting documentation, he has given me an opportunity to recognize them and to pledge my commitment to help change their living conditions.

Ratan Tata

Chairman Emeritus – Tata Group
Tata Trusts led by Ratan Tata, initiated an year long research and study in association with Tata Institue of Social Sciences (TISS) about the living conditions of the workers and what kind of policies would be needed to help them.
“After the launch of Olwe’s book everyone was aware about the discrimination the conservancy workers face and that led to the launch of Mission Garima which was a collaboration of Municipality Corporation of Greater Mumbai and the Tata trust, Mumbai. The main aim was to eliminate unsafe practices of manual scavenging in Mumbai.”
Without a baseline study you cannot understand their story deep down. The three basic broad objectives of this project were:
 1) Determine the exact number of workers doing manual conservancy work of any form in Mumbai;
2) Categorise the total number of workers based on wards, type of job, work profile, and department;
3) Identify the basic problems that lead to manual conservancy in order to plan intervention. Thus, the survey explored aspects such as working conditions, tools/equipments, conditions at chowki, health, housing, alcoholism, and indebtedness. 
After the survey it was extremely sad to know that the nature of their work and the tools they use have remained the same but the quantum of work has increased. The quantum of garbage generated in Mumbai has increased substantially. In 2004, the city generated around 7,800 metric tonnes of waste per day, this increased to 9,400 metric tonnes per day in 2017. However, the strength of the workers has more or less remained the same.
The workers also suffer from skin and respiratory tract infections, malaria, dengue, back and knee pain, paralysis, hypertension, asthma, tuberculosis and noise pollution causing hearing impairment etc. Civic bodies in India are required to conduct health check up of the workers at regular intervals but never do so. About 31.1% workers reported being ill during the period of the survey. What I found out from the study is that, among all the categories of conservancy workers, the most dangerous work is that of the sewer workers. From time to time, the Supreme Court, high courts, human rights commissions, and appointed committees have issued guidelines for the protection of vulnerable sewer workers.
When we talk about legal measures on the issue of manual scavenging, the nation has always lacked the political will and hence, the legislations to abolish this practice could not be converted to social justice for millions of manual scavengers. The new legislation, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, has been enacted under entry 24 (welfare of labour) in the concurrent list by the union government.
After the study what I have found out is that it is easy to sympathise with or hate and degrade a manual scavenger from a safe distance. It is hard to imagine what goes through the mind of the worker when he descends into a manhole or sewer or cleans someone else’s dirt. After all, writing and venting about these issues will not make a difference unless concrete actions and measures at the policy level are implemented. 

Tedx Gateway

We were invited by TedX Gateway to speak and share about the conservancy workers and their issues. Watch the video in link below.

As part of the project, a second edition of the book was released by John Abraham on a larger scale and funded by the trust to reach the public and encourage policy makers to take up initiatives to help the community of workers . The images from the essay had now become very much a part of the policy making decisions and were no longer just windows into their lives.

The year long study revealed many statistics about the workers, many of which came to light because of the research. On an average 20 people die every month in the process of cleaning Mumbai. A heavy price for something that can be fixed in this day and age of technological marvels. With a better understanding of the problems of the workers, TATA Trusts launched “Mission Garima” (Garima = Dignity), a massive campaign to overhaul the lives of the workers and provide them with technological solutions for sewage management and developing health systems for the workers. Also an important aspect of the mission is to change the public’s view of these workers and finally provide them with a sense of Dignity that they have always deserved.

Mission Garima

A joint initiative by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and TATA Trusts. The Mission is to eliminate unsafe and undignified practices of conservancy workers in Mumbai. The Trust is working on Technological solutions, Health camps, Outreach and Awarness.

Photo Essay: In Search of Dignity and Justice

About 40,000 conservancy workers, also known as sweepers, are employed by the Brihanmumbai 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. This is their story.

The Images that are part of this project are not pretty, not easy to look at nor would you hang it up on your walls. But these images have the power to create definitive change in the lives of these workers and it has done so. Such images constitue Social Documentary Photography and define PPT’s mission to create impact on marginalised communities through photography.

There is a long way to go to fully help the workers and their families. Change here is a continous process and cannot be implemented in one go. Years of stigma, discrimination and injustice have to be broken to truly help them. This includes better public outreach, educating the future generations and providing alernative means of livelihood. Manual Scavenging and the undignifed practice of using bare hands to pick up garbage has been outlawed by the Government of India yet it thrives in the largest metropolitan city of the country. The day these workers do not have to use plastic bags as gloves and caps is the day definitive change will have started. Till then we work, we shoot, we protest and demand dignity and justice.

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