Treat sewage workers as manual scavengers, pay Rs 10 lakh as compensation to kin of the dead since 1993: Supreme Court

manual scavengersThe Safai Karmachari Andolan believes that the Supreme Court judgment of March 29 on eradication of inhuman practice of manual scavenging is historic as it deprecated the continuance of manual scavenging in the country in blatant violation of Article 17 of the Constitution of India, by which “untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden”. The court was emphatic about the duty cast on all states and union territories “to fully implement the law and to take action against the violators”. A writeup: 

In a significant endorsement of concerns raised by the Safai Karmachari Andolan, the Supreme Court directed the government to, “Identify the families of all persons who have died in sewerage work (manholes, septic tanks) since 1993 and award compensation of Rs 10 lakh for each such death to the family members depending on them”. In its judgment by Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam, the court categorically said that if the practice of manual scavenging has to be brought to a close and also to prevent future generations from the inhuman practice of manual scavenging, rehabilitation of manual scavengers will need to be carried out.

The Supreme Court wants that the following important steps would require to be taken:

(a) Entering sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime even in emergency situations. For any death as a result of sending any manual scavenger inside the gutter, compensation of Rs 10 lakh should be given to the family of the deceased.

(b) Railways should take time bound strategy to end manual scavenging on the tracks.

(c) Persons released from manual scavenging should not have to cross hurdles to receive what is their legitimate due under the law.

(d) There should be dignified livelihood to safai karamchari women in accordance with their choice of livelihood schemes.

The Supreme Court also said that rehabilitation must be based on the principles of justice and transformation. The court directed the Indian Railways, which is the largest employer of manual scavengers in the country, to take time bound strategy to end manual scavenging on the tracks. National convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan Bezwada Wilson said, this is a victory of manual scavengers who have been fighting across the country for their liberation against the denial of central and various state governments repeatedly.

The Supreme Court acknowledged the significance of the data provided by the petitioner Safai Karmachari Andolan in its 12 years legal battle, demonstrating that the practice of manual scavenging continues unabated. Dry latrines continue to exist notwithstanding the fact that the 1993 Act was in force for nearly two decades. States have acted in denial of the 1993 Act and the constitutional mandate to abolish untouchability.

Supreme Court observations

Writ petition No 583 of 2003, of Safai Karamchari Andolan & Ors, versus the Union of India was filed by as a Public Interest Litigation under Article 32 of the Constitution of India praying for issuance of a writ of mandamus to the Union of India, State governments and Union territories to strictly enforce the implementation of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The inhuman practice of manually removing night soil which involves removal of human excrements from dry toilets with bare hands, brooms or metal scrappers; carrying excrements and baskets to dumping sites for disposal is a practice that is still prevalent in many parts of the country.

Supreme Court said, “While the surveys conducted by some of the organizations estimate that there are over 12 lakh manual scavengers undertaking the degrading human practice in the country, the official statistics issued by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for the year 2002-2003 puts the figure of identified manual scavengers at 6,76,009. Of these, over 95% are Dalits, who are compelled to undertake this denigrating task under the garb of ‘traditional occupation’. The manual scavengers are considered as untouchables by other mainstream castes and are thrown into a vortex of severe social and economic exploitation.”

It added, “The sub-committee of the Task Force constituted by the Planning Commission in 1989 estimated that there were 72.05 lakh dry latrines in the country. These dry latrines have not only continued to exist till date in several states but have increased to 96 lakhs and are still being cleaned manually by scavengers belonging to the Scheduled Castes.”

The Supreme Court said, “The Act, which was enacted in June 1993, remained inoperative for about three-and-a-half years. It was finally brought into force in the year 1997. In the first instance, the Act applied to the States of Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tripura and West Bengal and to all the Union Territories. It was expected that the remaining states would adopt the Act subsequently by passing appropriate resolution under Article 252 of the Constitution.”

“However”, it pointed out, “as noted by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, a statutory body, set up under the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993, in its 3rd and 4th Reports submitted to Parliament, that the 1993 Act was not being implemented effectively, and further notedt hat the estimated number of dry latrines in the country is 96 lakh and the estimated number of manual scavengers identified was 5,77,228. It further noted that manual scavengers were being employed in the military engineering works, the army, public sector undertakings, Indian Railways etc.”

In December 2003, the apex court noted, “the Safai Karamchari Andolan along with six other civil society organizations as well as seven individuals belonging to the community of manual scavengers filed the present writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution on the ground that the continuation of the practice of manual scavenging as well as of dry latrines is illegal and unconstitutional since it violates the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 17, 21 and 23 of the Constitution of India and the 1993 Act.”

Pointing out that the “practice of untouchability in general and of manual scavenging in particular was deprecated in no uncertain terms by Dr BR Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution of India”, the Supreme Court noted, “From 2003 till date, the writ petition was treated as a continuing mandamus. The Supreme Court, on several occasions, directed the Union and State Governments to take steps towards the monitoring and implementation of the Act. Various orders have gradually pushed the State Governments to ratify the law and appoint executive authorities under the Act. Due to mounting pressure of the Supreme Court, in March 2013, the Central Government announced a Survey of Manual Scavengers. The survey was confined only to 3546 statutory towns and did not extend to rural areas. “

The apex court noted, “Even with this limited mandate, the survey has shown remarkably little progress. State records in the ‘Progress Report of Survey of Manual Scavengers and their Dependents’ dated February 27, 2014 show that they have only been able to identify a minuscule proportion of the number of people actually engaged in manual scavenging. For instance, the petitioners, with their limited resources, managed to identify 1,098 persons in manual scavenging in the State of Bihar. The Progress Report dated February 27, 2014 claims to have identified only 136. In the State of Rajasthan, the petitioners identified 816 manual scavengers whereas the Progress Report of the State dated February 27, 2014 identified only 46.”

The Supreme Court said, “The data collected by the petitioners makes it abundantly clear that the practice of manual scavenging continues unabated. Dry latrines continue to exist notwithstanding the fact that the 1993 Act was in force for nearly two decades. States have acted in denial of the 1993 Act and the constitutional mandate to abolish untouchability.”

Pointing out that due to the effective intervention and directions of the Supreme Court, the Government of India brought the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 for abolition of this evil and for the welfare of manual scavengers, the apex court said, chapter II of the Act contains provisions for identification of insanitary latrines.

Thus, section 4(1) of the Act reads: “Every local authority shall carry out a survey of insanitary latrines existing within its jurisdiction, and publish a list of such insanitary latrines within a period of two months from the date of commencement of the Act; give a notice to the occupier, within fifteen days from the date of publication of the list, to either demolish the insanitary latrine or convert it into a sanitary latrine, within a period of six months from the date of commencement of the Act; and construct, within a period not exceeding nine months from the date of commencement of the Act, such number of sanitary community latrines, as it considers necessary, in the areas where insanitary latrines have been found.”

Chapter IV of the Act contains provisions with respect to identification of manual scavengers in Urban and Rural Areas and also provides for their rehabilitation. Section 13 of the Act reads, “Any person included in the final list of manual scavengers published in pursuance of sub-section (6) of section 11 or added thereto in pursuance of sub-section (3) of section 12, shall be rehabilitated in the following manner:

“(a) he shall be given, within one month, (i) a photo identity card, containing, inter alia, details of all members of his family dependent on him, and (ii) such initial, one time, cash assistance, as may be prescribed;

“(b) his children shall be entitled to scholarship as per the relevant scheme of the Central Government or the State Government or the local authorities, as the case may be;

“(c) he shall be allotted a residential plot and financial assistance for house construction, or a ready-built house, with financial assistance, subject to eligibility and willingness of the manual scavenger, and the provisions of the relevant scheme of the Central Government or the State Government or the concerned local authority;

“(d) he, or at least one adult member of his family, shall be given, subject to eligibility and willingness, training in a livelihood skill, and shall be paid a monthly stipend of not less than three thousand rupees, during the period of such training;

“(e) he, or at least one adult member of his family, shall be given, subject to eligibility and willingness, subsidy and concessional loan for taking up an alternative occupation on a sustainable basis, in such manner as may be stipulated in the relevant scheme of the Central Government or the State Government or the concerned local authority;

“(f) he shall be provided such other legal and programmatic assistance, as the Central Government or State Government may notify in this behalf.”

Chapter V of the Act provides for the implementing mechanism: “It shall be the responsibility of every local authority to ensure, through awareness campaign or in such other manner that after the expiry of a period of nine months, from the date of commencement of this Act, (i) no insanitary latrine is constructed, maintained or used within its jurisdiction; and (ii) in case of contravention of clause (i), action is taken against the occupier under sub-section.”

It adds, “The District Magistrate shall ensure that, after the expiry of such period as specified for the purpose of this Act, (a) no person is engaged or employed as manual scavenger within their jurisdiction; (b) no one constructs, maintains, uses or makes available for use, an insanitary latrine; (c) manual scavengers identified under this Act are rehabilitated.”

Chapter VII of the Act provides for the establishment of Vigilance and Monitoring Committees in the following terms: “Every State Government shall, by notification, constitute a Vigilance Committee for each district and each Sub-Division. Every state government shall, by notification, constitute a State Monitoring Committee, consisting of the Chief Minister of State or a Minister nominated by him as Chairperson. The functions of the State Monitoring Committee shall be (a) to monitor and advise the State Government and local authorities for effective implementation of this Act; (b) to co-ordinate the functions of all concerned agencies; (c) to look into any other matter incidental thereto or connected therewith for implementation of this Act.”

Then, the Act says, there should be a Central Monitoring Committee which “shall consist of the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment as Chairperson” and the functions of the Central Monitoring Committee shall be “to monitor and advise the Central Government and State Government for effective implementation of this Act and related laws and programmes.”

As for the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, the Act says, it shall “(a) monitor the implementation of this Act; (b) enquire into complaints regarding contravention of the provisions of this Act, and to convey its findings to the concerned authorities with recommendations requiring further action; (c) advise the Central and the State Governments for effective implementation of the provisions of this Act. (d) take suo motu notice of matter relating to non-implementation of this Act.”

Supreme Court direction

Based on the provisions of the 2013 Act, as also various orders of the Supreme Court, the apex court issued the directions that:

(i) The persons included in the final list of manual scavengers under Sections 11 and 12 of the 2013 Act, shall be rehabilitated as per the provisions of Part IV of the 2013 Act, in the following manner:

(a) such initial, one time, cash assistance, as may be prescribed;

(b) their children shall be entitled to scholarship as per the relevant scheme of the Central Government or the State Government or the local authorities, as the case may be;

(c) they shall be allotted a residential plot and financial assistance for house construction, or a ready-built house with financial assistance, subject to eligibility and willingness of the manual scavenger as per the provisions of the relevant scheme;

(d) at least one member of their family, shall be given, subject to eligibility and willingness, training in livelihood skill and shall be paid a monthly stipend during such period;

(e) at least one adult member of their family, shall be given, subject to eligibility and willingness, subsidy and concessional loan for taking up an alternative occupation on sustainable basis, as per the provisions of the relevant scheme;

(f) shall be provided such other legal and programmatic assistance, as the Central Government or State Government may notify in this behalf.

(ii) If the practice of manual scavenging has to be brought to a close and also to prevent future generations from the inhuman practice of manual scavenging, rehabilitation of manual scavengers will need to include:

(a) Sewer deaths entering sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime even in emergency situations. For each such death, compensation of Rs 10 lakh should be given to the family of the deceased.

(b) Railways should take time bound strategy to end manual scavenging on the tracks.

(c) Persons released from manual scavenging should not have to cross hurdles to receive what is their legitimate due under the law.

(d) Provide support for dignified livelihood to safai karamchari women in accordance with their choice of livelihood schemes.

(iii) Identify the families of all persons who have died in sewerage work (manholes, septic tanks) since 1993 and award compensation of Rs 10 lakh for each such death to the family members depending on them.

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