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India

In Mumbai, Thousands Toil In The World's Largest Laundry

India's working poor include more than 5,000 men and women at one facility who wash and iron clothes by hand 14 hours a day, seven days a week, earning barely enough to survive.

Dhobi Ghat, in Mumbai
Dhobi Ghat, in Mumbai
Fabian von Poser

MUMBAI - There is laundry as far as the eye can see — shirts, trousers, handkerchiefs, sheets, pillow cases, underwear, uniforms. Everything that can possibly be worn and soiled. And it’s all being cleaned not with washing machines, but with hard human labor.

Clad in an undershirt and shorts, Surajbali Kanaugia stands in the pigeon-grey water of a two-by-two meter (6.5 x 6.5 feet) concrete wash tub. He beats a sheet against a stone, over and over, until it’s virtually water-free.

“On good days I can launder 100 items, a little less on bad days,” he says. “First I soften laundry in soapsuds and wash it with a brush. After that I beat items on the stone until all the dirt is rinsed away, then hang the piece up to dry.”

The 36-year-old has been working at this central outdoor laundry facility in Mumbai since he was 13 years old — nearly a quarter of a century. He gets up at 4:30 a.m. and works until 7 p.m.: 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Like most of the washermen at Dhobi Ghat (Hindi for “washing place”), Kanaugia comes from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. More than 5,000 men work here in the 826 washing tubs, laundering items for hotels, restaurants, hospitals and private households. Customers pay four cents to have a sheet washed, two cents for a pillow case.

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Dhobi Ghat - Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Although there are electrical outlets at Dhobi Ghat, women iron laundry here with irons filled with hot coals. But there are a couple of electrical dryers. “We mainly use those during monsoon season between June and September,” says Kanaugia. “Otherwise nothing dries here.”

You would be hard pressed to find another place where the contrasts of modern India manifest as strikingly as in Mumbai. There is, on one hand, the almost shocking poverty. Millions of people looking for work stream into the city from all over India. Most of them end up as ragmen.

Then there are the vestiges of obscene wealth in a globalized world. On nearby Marine Drive, dozens of high-end high rises gleam like mirrors in the sunlight. A few kilometers beyond them is Bandra and its Bollywood high glitz.

Not far from Dhobi Ghat is Antilia, the biggest and most expensive single-family home on the planet. It belongs to Indian business magnate Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Limited, and it is said to have cost between $50 and $70 million.

Destiny determined at birth

Indian society is changing fast, and its heirarchies are becoming more porous. But the caste system still determines the choice of life partner and line of work for many millions of people.

Including Kanaugia. He belongs to the Dhobi, or washerman, caste. Like most of those who work at the laundry, he lives in a nearby shantytown, sharing his hut with 15 other people, sometimes more.

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Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai - Photo: Alexanderpf

In the early morning hours, the washermen pray in a sparsely furnished temple near the laundering area. After a cup of tea and some dal (a purée of lentils and rice), they walk over to the ghat.

The wash tubs belong to the city and must be rented. “The rent is 300 rupees a month,” Kanaugia says, the equivalent of 4.20 euros or $5.60. “How much I earn depends on how many items I launder. Usually, I earn 10,000 rupees a month.” That’s 140 euros ($186).

In the mega-city of Mumbai, where rents are some of the fastest-climbing in the world, that’s a pittance. And the working conditions are tough: Like most of his colleagues, Kanaugia has neither a pension nor health insurance. That's despite suffering injuries and acid burns on his hands and feet from using chemical-laden products to clean the clothing and linens.

People at the ghat are modest about their prospects in life. Many have accepted the fact that there is no escape. “I have no education,” Kanaugia says. “That’s why I’ll probably be a washerman my whole life long. Like my father and grandfather.”

Yet he is grateful for what he has and says his circumstance could be a lot worse. “I at least have some money for food and a roof over my head. Many others in this city don’t have that.”

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