‘Inequality anywhere is a threat to equality everywhere’
-Martin Luther King Jr.
Discrimination is the antonym of equality. Until such time as each individual within our country is not treated fairly and equally, we cannot be held to be prejudice free. Many abhorrent traditions have existed in India, and they continue to exist despite statutory prohibitions. One such tradition is manual scavenging, which has been prohibited since 1993 but still claims lives every year. Worse the section among the Dalits (Scheduled Castes) exclusively involved in this demeaning occupation face a societal, social and political ostracisation as none other. Manual scavenging is not only a societal problem, but it is a living example of the rigid existence of India’s caste system.
This denial is conscious and deliberate. It exists as a manifestation of Indian society’s casteist Brahminical structure. It is an undeniable fact that almost all of the people involved in manual scavenging, men, women and children, are Dalits. Manual scavenging is work imposed on a segment of the population defined by their caste; however, the word ‘caste’ does not appear in the text of the acts that have been implemented thus far. As a result, it fails to address the root cause of the rot in society and cannot be expected to solve it. The truth is, however, that ignoring the problem will not solve it.
The previous definition of manual scavenging under Section 2(j) of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, was limited to the removal of human excreta. However, due to the Act’s non-implementation, no single prosecution was brought against the employment of any person(s) as Manual Scavengers.
The 1993 Act was repealed due to its ineffectiveness, and the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, took its place. According to Section 2(g) of the latter Act, the definition of Manual Scavenger was expanded to include insanitary latrines, open drains, pits, railway tracks, sewers, and septic tanks. The Act also states that the person must be engaged or employed on a regular or contract basis, and that people who clean excreta using “devices and protective gear” are not considered “manual scavengers.”
Both of these acts have failed to adequately address the issue of manual scavenging. These failures led to even more denial, as evidenced by the endless debates between governments and municipalities over the number of people involved in manual scavenging and the resultant deaths. The failure to focus on human exploitation, in other words, the absence of basic principles of morality, ethics and humanity, rendered the government’s half-hearted efforts completely ineffective.
A detailed look into the jurisprudence governing manual scavenging, researched consistently by Citizens for Justice and Peace, can be accessed here.
On April 12, 2023, two days ago, the Supreme Court directed the Secretary of the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, to schedule a meeting with the secretaries of all states and union territories in charge of social justice as soon as possible to discuss various aspects to prevent the employment of manual scavengers. A Bench of Justices Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta also directed the Amicus Curiae and Additional Solicitor General to provide a list of the possible ‘discussion points’ for the said meeting to the Court, according to the web portal Livelaw.
This directive came as the Supreme Court was considering a plea seeking steps to limit the hiring of manual scavengers in the country. Previously, in February 2023, the Court directed the Union of India to record the steps it had taken to prevent the employment of manual scavengers in accordance with the prohibition of employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013. The court also ordered the Centre to record the steps taken by each state to abolish or demolish Dry Latrines, as well as the status of dry latrines and Safai Karamcharis in Cantonment Boards and Railways. During the previous hearing, the Court had further inquired whether the employment of Safai Karamcharis in Railways and Cantonments Boards were direct or indirect i.e. through contractors or otherwise.
During the previous hearing, the court asked the Centre to inform it of the steps taken in accordance with the guidelines issued in the 2014 judgment “Safai Karamchari Andolan And Others vs. Union of India And Others.” In the aforementioned Safai Karamchari Andolan judgment, the Court issued an assortment of guidelines for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, including cash assistance, scholarship for their children, allotment of residential plots, training in livelihood skill and monthly stipends, concessional loans, and so on. The judgment also established the minimum compensation in cases of sewer deaths and directed the railways to end manual scavenging on tracks.
During the hearing on April 12, two days ago, the Amicus, Advocate K Parameshwar informed the bench that the Indian Railways had employed cleaners for ‘insanitary latrine’ using protective gear. This does not fit the definition of manual scavenging, he had claimed.
“The Act says their engagement in Railway tracks is a problem. But then says employment under rules is allowed. The entire purpose of the Dry Latrines Act and earlier judgment was to have mechanised cleaning. But this brings it back,” said Advocate K Parameshwar, as provided by the Livelaw. The Amicus Curiae said that the biggest culprit was the “Indian Railways in this instance”.
The Bench then asked ASG Aishwarya Bhati regarding the measures that could be taken for states that had not formed the committees as directed by the Court. The Court also asked the Indian Railways to file a specific affidavit dealing with these aspects, and directed ASG Aishwarya Bhati to take instructions from the Railways, as provided by the Livelaw. The matter had been scheduled to be heard on April 19 next.
Judgments by the Courts- no implementation in spirit
In the case, Amit Sahni v. Government of Nct of Delhi & Ors, a PIL had been filed in the year 2019 by Advocate Amit Sahni, seeking strict compliance of the 2013 Act in order to prevent loss of lives due to manual cleaning of septic tanks and sewers. In July 2022, the Centre had informed the Delhi High Court that due to various initiatives brought in by the Government, the number of tragic accidents while cleaning sewers and septic tanks have come down significantly. While stating that sanitation is a State subject, the affidavit provides that the cases of manual scavenging and deaths due to cleaning of septic tanks and sewers are forwarded to the State Government for taking necessary action. Emphasising that the Government is seriously concerned with the tragic incidents of deaths while cleaning sewer and septic tanks, the Centre has stated that as and when such case comes to its notice, the matter is immediately taken up with the concerned State Government to ensure payment of compensation to the affected family members and for taking action against the persons or agencies responsible for engaging persons for hazardous cleaning for sewer or septic tanks.
It is crucial to note here that while in this above-mentioned case the government had stated that pursuant to the initiatives started by them the number of manual scavenging deaths had come down, in September 2022, the Delhi High Court had taken suo motu cognizance of a news report stating that two men had died last week in city’s Mundka area after they inhaled toxic gases inside a sewer. The news report had stated that that while Chandiliya was the first one to go inside the sewer, he fell unconscious after inhaling the toxic gases inside. Thereafter, Kumar went inside the sewer to rescue Chandiliya where he also fell unconscious. The two men were taken to a hospital but were declared brought dead. In October 2022, the Delhi HC had then directed the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to pay Rs 10 lakh each as compensation to the family of two persons
In November 2022, in the matter of Harnam Singh v. Government of Nct of Delhi & Ors., the Delhi High Court had heard a public interest litigation moved by Harnam Singh, a social activist and former Chairman of DCSK, raising concern in respect of conditions and facilities provided to various sanitation workers in the national capital. Apart from seeking directions for compliance of the law including the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, the plea also sought health insurance and medical facilities for sanitation workers and their families. Disposing the said case, the court had directed the Delhi Government to ensure strict compliance of statutory provisions contained in 2013 Act and the Rules framed under the enactment.
It is important to note, that in the said case, the responding authorities- Delhi Government, NCSK, Union of India and DCSK- had informed the Delhi HC that about the safeguards and measures taken for safety of the workers, including details about the training imparted to the Safai Karamcharis, their vaccination and their residential arrangement. The respondent authorities also informed court that the benefits given to health care workers were also extended to sanitation workers deployed in Delhi Government Health Institutions without any discrimination. The court was also informed that the statutory provisions are being followed, compensation is being paid and that the government has ensured that equipment are being provided to the workers. Keeping the said in mind, the court had this thus observed that the Delhi Government “does not have any other choice” except to implement the statutory provisions as contained under the 2013 Act and relevant Rules.
The judgment in the said case can be read here.
Through the above mentioned cases, it can be deduced that for the Centre, state and its functionaries have had the same stance since the beginning, of denial. Thus, even as the Supreme Court has ordered for a meeting to discuss for the prevention of employment of manual scavengers, the said meeting will not yield any result till the time the Centre stops playing the defense, and starts accepting the ground reality, their role and their contribution in this issue. While the government refuses to acknowledge the continued prevalence of manual scavenging in India, an increasing number of people are dying as a result of it on a daily basis. More and more cases are being filed in India’s various courts, highlighting the appalling working conditions of manual scavengers and sewage workers in our country. in the previous years, many high courts, such as the Odisha High Court, Kerala High Court, Madras High court, Karnataka High Court, Bombay High Court, and even the Supreme Court itself have pronounced judgments reprimanding the authorities for the lack of safe infrastructure provided for scavenging and the tedious legal path that the kin of the victims have to take while securing compensation.
Basic acknowledgement and reparation (compensation) rights have not yet been granted to victims of manual scavenging. One such basic right, to have the perpetrator of the crime be punished under due process, by law. In October 2022, the Supreme Court had asked the Union Government to file an updated affidavit in a plea seeking initiation of criminal proceedings against officials, agencies, contractors or any other person involved in engaging or employing manual scavengers resulting in their death at work. This matter, Criminal Justice Society v. UOI And Ors, the petitioner had also prayed for directions to the Union and State Governments to bring on record the actual number of persons engaged in manual scavenging and also a number of persons who have died since 1993 while working as manual scavengers so that FIRs can be registered in all such cases. There has been no update in this case as of now.
The judgment can be read here.
To truly change the situation and prevent it from continuing in these perilous and insidious ways, the government must be more proactive in recognising, rescuing, and rehabilitating manual scavengers across India. These so-called ‘service providers’ must also be identified and prosecuted. When even children are caught in these vicious cycles, immediate action is the only option.
The onus is not just not on the government, however. For India’s vast and stratified citizenry, some more privileged than most, many marginalized in different forms and ways, to understand and acknowledge that the rights of the manual scavenging community (caste) are the most abused, and that it is a shame to all us all that this practice persists at all, would be a sign that a genuine democratization of thought and spirit has taken root. Till we turn away, this scourge will persist as a sore reminder of our callous indifference.
During the budget session of the parliament of the year 2023, the issue of rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers was raised in the Lok Sabha. Ms. Mimi Chakraborty (TMC) had raised questions regarding the budget allocation for rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers. Responding to the same, Shri Ramdas Athawale, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment had provided the following information:
The minister also provided the details of the number of beneficiaries provided under the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), who have been provided with the capital subsidy for mechanical de-sludging of sewer systems and expenditure incurred since then, which is as follows:
An analysis of the budgetary resources available to the SRMS clearly indicates their inadequacy to rehabilitate and empower manual scavengers. SRMS is one of the most important government interventions for manual scavengers. Implemented by the National Safai Karmacharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) more than ten years ago, it is far from meeting its goals.
As can be deduced from the tables provided above, the utilisation towards rehabilitation of manual scavengers is significantly less than the budget estimate. it is also crucial to note that the a significant decrease has also been noted in the number of beneficiaries in the year 2022-23, where the beneficiaries decreased to 141 from 461 in the previous year.
In the same answer, the minister also provided that out of the 1035 persons that have died due to hazardous cleaning of sewer/ septic tanks since 1993, family members of 948 have been provided compensation. While the government provided number of deaths due to manual scavenging is certainly not correct, it is crucial to note here that even after thirty years, almost 100 families are yet to be paid the desired compensation.
The complete answer can be read here.
No space and no justice for manual scavengers in this Amrit Kaal
Even in this “Amrit Kaal” period of India, 76 years of India as an independent country, manual scavenging continues unchecked and unabated in India. The Dalit community still bears the stigma of cleaning sewers.
Well known for her sweeping promises, in her budget speech, Nirmala Sitharaman, the union finance minister of India had said that “All cities and towns will be enabled for 100% transition of sewers and septic tanks from manhole to machine-hole mode.”
Despite these lame assurances, nothing has changed in spirit, and if recent developments in the Supreme Court are considered, there is only a slim chance that the situation will change. The present government’s inconsideration (even denial) of caste inequalities as a relevant criterion to inform its policies is one of the things that stands in the way of the said slim chance. The current government saves face by bringing in the kin compensation, but does nothing to bring those on the margins of society into the financial ecosystem by safeguarding their socioeconomic interests. There is an urgent need to ensure that those who have escaped manual scavenging have easy access to financial benefits so that they do not have to return to the practice, whether due to discrimination faced or otherwise. It is critical that we remember that the core of manual scavenging is a violent denial of human rights, as Dr BR Ambedkar declared, all those decades ago. The deaths of the most marginalized among Dalits as a result of manual scavenging, intentional or out of a systemic disregard for human life, constitute a hate crime. The existence of caste is central to the perpetration of this crime, fragmenting our conscience to the point where we go about our lives unaffected and unperturbed by the sight of individuals sweeping excreta from railway tracks, naalis, sewers, and manholes, unprotected, armed with nothing but a basket and brooms.