Having been a photographer for over two decades and after covering the glitz and glamour of Bollywood and the fashion industry,the underbelly of Mumbai was unfamiliar territory for 47-year-old Sudharak Olwe. Until in the early noughties,when he,along with an activist friend,chanced upon a colony of conservancy workers in central Mumbai. One glimpse into their lives and work and Olwe decided to chronicle the lives of conservancy workers in Mumbai.
A decade later,after having spent most of his days and nights in areas where nearly 30,000 conservancy workers live and work,Olwe has compiled a book on their untold story In search of dignity and justice.
The photo book captures the routine of a safai karmachari. Their lives are devoid of dignity. They work tirelessly but go unnoticed. We do not even notice that each day,at least two-three of them die after falling into sewers or because of occupational illnesses, says Olwe,a J J School of Arts graduate. The book,with nearly 150 black and white pictures,depicts their work,their aspirations,their complaints and tribulations.
Olwe,who has worked with several news publications both national and international and has won several awards and accolades for his photography,says this assignment was particularly difficult. I had to shoot their lives,which only had sadness and despair. They would ask me to stop shooting them and would say that I am only wasting my time.
Olwe did stop shooting at one point. It was too depressing to see people enter the sewage lines with no safety gear. To see men return home and drink excessively,to see them drag piles of garbage,every day. To see families grieve each time a conservancy worker died in a manhole. I stopped photographing them for a short span,until my friends persuaded me to resume, he says. The work started as a part of a fellowship programme won him an award in National Geographics All Road photographers Programme. Olwe says the project changed his life. Now I only take up
Born into a Dalit family,Olwe emphasises that caste discrimination was a distant reality. I knew it existed,but never sensed it. But this work moved me.
Conservancy work,a caste-based practice,is predominantly done by the Valmiki and Mehtar communities. This must be perhaps one profession where work is reserved 100 per cent for Dalits, Olwe says.