In the thick of winters, Kirpal Valmik’s 55-year-old widow Mamta sweeps the ground of the Amanganj bus stand, in Madhya Pradesh, without any gloves or shoes. She had become a permanent employee of the municipal corporation after her husband passed away in a septic tank accident in 1992. This was before manual scavenging was a punishable offense.
It was only a year later that The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was framed which punished their employment and the construction of dry latrines. Mumbai-based documentary photographer Sudharak Olwe met Mamta when he was on a trip to three states — Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh to document the lives of manual scavengers and sanitation workers for international NGO Water Aid. The photos now make the exhibition “Including the Excluded” at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. It also includes photographs by Chennai-based Palani Kumar, who captured the lives of the workers in Chennai, Madurai, and Cuddalore.
“We would begin our day at 4.30 am. One can’t see any activity around, it’s only the workers at that time. Come daylight and their work is done and dusted,” says Olwe, who has worked as a press photographer with leading newspapers, including The Indian Express. “As a photographer, it was important for me to win their trust. But the photographs present just one layer of their lives.
Their condition is pathetic. They experience caste-based violence daily. They get no respect or dignity from people. The moment one hears the name Valmiki or Dom, they are asked to stand up and move away,” says Olwe, who was given the Padma Shri in 2016. Through the photos, we meet Santosh, who was also injured in that 1992 accident; his eyes are permanently damaged. “We usually drink before we take a plunge to help us cope with the smell. We were told by the owner of the tank that it’s six feet deep. However, as we entered, I realised that it was much more because I’m 6.2 foot tall. As we dived in, we began drowning,” he says.
Olwe also visited the Dom community residing on the outskirts of Thillai Gaon in Bihar’s Hathni block. They had lost their houses and most of their cattle in a fire caused by children from upper-caste communities, who thought ‘Doms don’t deserve to be in school’. Almost all the men of this community work as manual scavengers or sanitation workers in Sasaram. Closer home, in Ghaziabad’s Farukhnagar, 35-year-old Manju makes Rs 2,500 as a safai karamchari in a school. Her daughter Vidhi also faces discrimination in her school, because she is a Valmiki.
A few months ago, Olwe had initiated #PhotographersForFarmers, where he urged everyone to ‘just go and meet farmers’, during the farmers’ march in Mumbai and Delhi. In the past, he has documented atrocities faced by Dalits, sex workers in Mumbai’s Kamathipura and the city’s conservancy workers. The exhibition is till July 4 at IHC.
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