Photo feature: The worm collectors of Pune’s Mutha river

Sludge worms collected from the heavily polluted Mutha river are washed and dried and sold to aquariums. While worm collectors barely earn a day's living, aquariums sell these worms for Rs 4,000-5,000 a kg.

Abhay Kanvinde
| Updated: November 4th, 2020

For the past few years, I walk along the bridges and riverbanks of Pune, taking pictures of the unique happenings here. I have made several silent friends who sit at the riverbanks grazing their cattle, or recline on the bridges, looking at the river. As a photographer, their body language and stories have fascinated me, as has the river.

During the initial days of COVID19 lockdown, I talked with some fisherfolk fishing in the Mutha, one of the most polluted rivers in the country. One evening I saw a group of men entering the river with a small net and I assumed they were fishing. I climbed down the stairs of the bridge to watch. But they were not fishing. They were hauling up sludge and mud from the bottom of the river and putting it in mesh nets.

These are the Worm Collectors of the City, who literally live off a polluted river, at personal peril.

Worm Collectors collect Tubifex worms (also called Sludge worms) which inhabit anaerobic sludge made by a combination of solid waste, sewage and silt. These worms are either dried or washed and sold to aquariums. While the men make hardly one day’s wage collecting the worms, dried worms are sold at nearly Rs 4,000-5,000/ Kg by Aquariums.

Anna entering Mutha River with a plastic bag and net. Anna is originally from Tamil Nadu. In Pune, he and his group of friends collect worms at 6 to 7 locations. All these have one thing in common: Polluted water. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Venturing in the river, collecting sludge in the bag and net. Anna and his friends tell me worms are plenty where nallas or urban drains meet the river. This point is exactly where one of the largest drain, Ambil Odha meets the Mutha River Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
About 6-7 Worm Collectors scourge the river bottom sludge each day. Anna tells me worms are found in the morning and the evening. In the hot sun of the noon, they dig down deeper and cannot be found Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Relaxing for a while amidst the sewage and sludge with bags full of sludge which will be sieved for Tubifex Worms. These are extremely risky conditions to spend time in. Apart from skin infections, the problems are cut glass and pieces of used syringes in the river. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
The sludge is sieved many times to wash off the waste and separate out the worms Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Bags of worms and residual sludge are hauled out of the river Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Worms are transferred to a bag which is set out for the middlemen to take to the drying factory. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Several of Anna’s friends are involved in this activity. They are not part-time worm collectors and do not fish. This is their main livelihood. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Tubifex worms, sieved and washed. While these worms are also cultured in ponds, in several places across the country they are collected from polluted rivers, sewers and canals. While there is a parallel economy of collecting worms, it is a risky occupation as is obvious. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Worm Collectors of a polluted River. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
From here, the collected worms with some residual sludge are taken by the middlemen who take them either to drying factories or Aquariums to be sold as fresh feed Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
From here, the collected worms with some residual sludge are taken by the middlemen who take them either to drying factories or Aquariums to be sold as fresh feed. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
From a River which once supported more than 60 fish species to a river which supports pollution-indicator species. From a river which once had diverse fishing communities to a river which now supports Worm Collectors: Story of Mutha is a story of all urban Rivers in India. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde

In the next part of the Photo Story, I will try and share the journey of these worms which grow in pollution and are then used in affluent homes and glitzy stores to feed freshwater fish, also captured and reared unsustainably.

This photo feature has been sourced from SANDRP. Check the original blog here.