India’s caste system has been propelled onto front pages of tabloids around the world after it emerged members of the Dalit caste group (a Hindi word meaning oppressed) worked in sewerge systems beneath crowded cities.

What makes this all the more galling is that they work without even the most basic protective gear.

More than 30,000 ‘conservancy’ workers descend into the filth of the sewers beneath Mumbai each day. They work to unclog drains and remove rubbish with their bare hands. They wade or swim through human excrement and work in atrocious conditions so that the affluent city above them can carry on – and the sanitation they take for granted flow – without interruption.

Sudharak Olwe is an Indian documentary photographer and has been capturing the images of these long suffering workers.

“Without exception all of them despise their work,” he said.

For working by hand, often up to their chins in the most revolting fecal sludge imaginable, these people are paid around $7 a day.

Laws were introduced demanding workers be supplied with gloves, masks and other protective gear; but the laws are ignored by bosses greedy to save money.

Instead, the Dalit-caste workers rub coconut oil over their bodies and get to descend into the darkness.

“We just apply oil, there is no safety gear,” said Sunil Pawar to Al Jazeera. “Also there is poisonous gas, but this is our job.”

Workers will lower a lighted candle into a swere before descending. Only if there is enough oxygen to keep the candle flame alight will they enter.

However, the poisonous fumes of of the sewers have been linked to diabetes and tuberculosis, along with other long-term health problems in workers.



20 such conservancy workers die around the country each month. Most die by age 60.

The greatest fear these workers have is cutting themselves. Infections quickly become septic. Without almost immediate treatment the afflicted worker may lose their limb – and thereby job.

These workers endure their lot because it is what they were born to. They have no alternative. Their only  hope is that the money they earn will be enough to give their children another route in life.

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