The Supreme Court on Friday directed the Union government, state governments and Union Territories to ensure that the practice of manual scavenging is eradicated entirely and increased the compensation to the families of workers who die while cleaning sewers from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 30 lakh, reports PTI.
Manual scavenging – or the practice of removing human excreta by hand from sewer lines or septic tanks – has been banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. But, shamefully, the practice remains prevalent in several parts of the country.
A two-member bench consisting of Justices Ravindra Bhat and Aravind Kumar passed the directions while hearing a plea against the practice of manual scavenging.
The bench said that those who suffer permanent disabilities while cleaning sewers will be paid Rs 20 lakh minimum as compensation. Authorities will have to pay compensation of not less than Rs 10 lakh if the worker suffers other disabilities while cleaning sewers, it added.
The bench was pronouncing the judgment in the case Dr.Balram Singh v. Union of India, which is a Public Interest Litigation filed against the employment of manual scavengers.
“Ours is a battle not for wealth of power. It is a battle fo t is a battle for reclamation of human personality” – these words of Dr.Ambedkar were quoted by Justice Bhat while pronouncing the judgment.
“If you have to be truly equal in all respects, the commitment that Constitution makers gave to all sections of society by entrenching emancipatory provisions such as Articles 15(2), 17 and 23 and 24, each of us must live up to its promise Union and States are duty bound to ensure that the practice of manual scavenging is completely eradicated.
“Each of us owe to this large segment of the population, who have remained unseen, unheard and muted, in bondage systematically trapped in inhuman conditions.
“The conferment of entitlements and placement of obligations upon the Union and States through the express prohibitions in the Constitution and provisions of the 2013 Act mean that they are obliged to implement the provisions in the letter and spirit,” Justice Bhat read out the operative parts of the judgement.
` “Upon all of us citizens lie the duty of realising true fraternity. It is not without reason that our Constitution has placed great emphasis on the values of fraternity But for these two, all other liberties are chimera. All of us today who proudly bask in the achievements of our republic have to awake and arise so that the darkness which has been the fate of generations of our people is dispelled and they enjoy these freedoms and justi and justice- social, economic and political- that we take for granted,” Justice Bhat read out from the judgment.” Today is the last day of Justice Ravindra Bhat in the Supreme Court as he retires.
In 2014, the Supreme Court had directed that compensation of Rs 10 lakh should be paid to the
kin of those who died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks from 1993 onwards.
On Friday, October 20, the court said that the government must ensure that right to equality is implemented and untouchability as well as child labour are abolished, reported Live Law.
“Union and States are duty bound to ensure that the practice of manual scavenging is completely eradicated,” the court said. “Each of us owes to this large segment of the population, who have remained unseen, unheard and muted, in bondage systematically trapped in inhuman conditions.”
The Supreme Court also said that under the 2013 law, the Centre and state governments are obliged to implement their provisions in the letter and spirit. The court has listed the hearing in the matter on February 1.
Centre’s data on sewer deaths
In July 2021, in a written response submitted to the Rajya Sabha, Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry admits that the inhuman practice of manual scavenging is still prevalent in India with over 60,000 manual scavengers identified across the country but insisted that ‘no one had died due to this practice’. At the time, Ramdas Athawale, the Social Justice and Empowerment Minister has informed the Rajya Sabha through his written answer on July 28, 2021, that “no deaths pertaining to manual scavenging has been reported in the last five years.” Interestingly, this answer by Ramesh Athawale had in July that year contradicted his own written reply dated February 2, 2021, where he had stated that the reported number of deaths stood at 340 across 19 States, with Uttar Pradesh topping the list at 52 deaths, as reported previously by SabrangIndia!
In March 2023, however, the Union government said that 1,035 persons have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across India since 1993. In addition, of the 616 cases registered under the Manual Scavenging Act against contractors for not providing safety gear to sanitation workers, only one has ended up in conviction.
The Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers was intended to deal with the problem by identifying all manual scavengers in the country and providing them with means to employ safer practices or give them alternative livelihoods. However, the budgetary allocation towards it has seen a significant decline since 2019.
In the earlier budget for 2019-’20, the Centre had allocated Rs 110 crore for the scheme, but the revised estimate stood at Rs 99.93 crore. While the 2020-’21 Budget estimate was Rs 110 crore, the revised estimate came down to Rs 30 crore. For the 2021-’22 Budget, the government had initially allocated Rs 100 crore, but the revised estimate dropped to Rs 43.31 crore.
Sabrangindia has consistently reported on the callousness of governments and contractors in not adhering to provisions of the law. Lives of manual scavengers, derided and living on the fringes of society have been also covered extensively.