Sudharak Olwe’s recent series of photographs of manual scavengers is proof that in 30 years nothing has changed, but he says hope is what he holds close
More than 30 feet down, in the realm of darkness, he first touched the water that he says flowed quietly underneath. Suspended with a rope, he then reached out for the hand of the other, a manual scavenger who he accompanied as he went inside the sewer pit. This could be hell, he thought. He was younger then. Brave and rash. He wanted to participate in another’s mortality as he trained the camera at the plight of manual scavengers, his broken people.
By Chinki Sinha
That was in 2004 in Vikhroli in Mumbai. Sudharak Olwe never descended into the sewer pits again. “It felt like you were cut-off from the world. The rope was a distant hope. You could never come back up again”, he says.
At a recent exhibition ‘Including the Excluded’ on manual scavengers and sanitation workers, Olwe’s frames unsettle the viewer. He first shot the conservancy workers of Mumbai in 1999 and in 2018 when Olwe revisited the same places and people in 2018, nothing had changed.
The eyes of a conservancy worker stare at you. His body submerged in excreta and waste. Frames like these fall in another realm. And the despair they evoke can’t be measured against any critique of the art of photography. In the text by Shraddha Ghatge, who accompanied Olwe to the sites, you find the description of the black hole.
“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 gasesmethane, nitrogen, ammonia and hydrogen sulphidegenerated by the decaying organic matter. These toxic gases have been the cause of many deaths,” she writes.
It is part of the testimonies collected for the project in conjunction with WaterAid India a not for- profit organisation. The jobs in all the various categories of the conservancy work are reserved for the Scheduled Castes. They hardly have any safety gears to cover their faces and bodies. And their work remains low paid with no benefits.
According to Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, 11 sewer deaths were reported in India in 2019 alone. In 2018, the number stood at 105.
“Caste discrimination in its most rudimentary form can be detected by looking at representation of sections in working and labour structures, says Olwe. In fact, the photos hung on the wall in black and white are not even harsh. Those you wouldn’t be able to see,” he says.
And then he asks Palani Kumar, 27, photographer from Tamil Nadu, who has collaborated with Olwe in the recent project, to show photos of how the dead bodies of manual scavengers are hauled up to the ground. There is no dignity in death, Olwe says. In the photo, from the manhole a body emerges halfway with an iron anchor hooked to the foot of the dead man.
“Nobody will go down there so they throw this hook down there,” says Kumar, who quit his engineering job to document the lives and deaths of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu.
“I don’t know why I do it but I will keep doing it till I can break this slavery,” Kumar says. “In this wasteland, there are only the young who die. Because the young can breathe for longer in there. So they perish”. So far, Kumar has witnessed 40 such deaths. And Olwe, many more. The average age of those who die is 40.
For Olwe, the series that shows women, men and children from the community of manual scavengers and sanitation workers is important because in 2019 where one-way tickets to Mars are being sold, there is a netherworld reserved only for a community. Elsewhere, the government had said it aimed to make India scavenging free by 2019. In 2016, he was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award for his work documenting the plight of Mumbai’s Conservancy Workers. In Olwe’s world, there is no distraction of colour. He says the colour black has been associated for the longest time with the darkest of things, ideas like impurity and is also a colour for dissent.
Olwe, who was born in Vidarbha in Maharashtra and grew up on Mumbai, had first enrolled as an engineering student but later shifted to Sir JJ School of Applied Art. But he had to take care of his family in view of his father’s declining health and he took up photography at the Free Press Journal.
He is still the photographer wandering in search of stories so he can show to the public the gaping inequalities.
As an artist, he has no community. But as a member of the Dalit community, he also knows that in the 50 years after Raghubir Singh first shot a manual scavenger in the 1950s, there was nothing on them. “Will the upper caste go and talk to them and listen to them?” Olwe asks.
And it isn’t an exercise in voyeurism or sadism or even an exploitation of the marginalised. They are his people. And he tells them he wants to take their pictures, he can’t make any promises that change will come but he can say his conscience is clear.
He is working now on project on the Denotified Tribes (DNTs), also known as Vimukta Jati, who were listed originally under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, as Criminal Tribes.
And for hope he turns to his late father’s shard of poetry. “Let us return, reaping the gifts of equality. This, my dear, is beloved Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s messageThrough this, may the world attain prosperity,” Kisan Olwe had written.
The exhibition will be shown in digital format on July 9 at the United Nations in New York.
Courtesy: India today