One thing immediately noticed when in India is, no matter how relatively poor the people are their clothes are clean and bright. Rarely do you see people wearing dirty or even unpressed clothes? How is this achieved in a country where the use of washing machines, though growing, is very rare? The answer, of course, is the same way it has been achieved for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The dobhi washerman is the man instrumental in the process of keeping India clean.
Hundreds of thousands of these workers exist all over India hand washing clothes all day. It’s a grueling task in the hot sun, often up to their knees in water, these workers soap, scrub, soak, rinse, wring and dry, – and even press with coal-fired irons – the full range of clothes for every type of household or business. Even the higher priced hotels seem to use this services, as marks inside my collars seemed to show when they returned from the ‘hotel laundry’.
On top of the long and hard hours of work, there is the logistical nightmare of handling so many clothes from different origins at the same time – and ensuring they get back to the clients.
We visited one such washing area in Mumbai. The area is known as the Dhobi Ghats. Hundreds of stone cubicles, built by the British, are full of men beating the clothes clean. Human washing machines, cleaning up to 100,000 items of clothing every day.
There are said to be 5000 men occupied in this trade in Mumbai alone. And yet, even here, there is the odd industrial washing machine. With the ever increasing affluence of the Indian middle class, the use of washing machines is growing.
The decline of the Dhobi, and similar trades traditionally carried out by hand raises concerns for the working man in India. With the rush to modernism and the consequent loss of jobs, just where is India’s massive population going to work. There is a delicate balance to be made on this tightrope between modernising a society and the consequent job losses.