Shocks the judicial conscience: Odisha HC on death of four manual scavengers

The High Court has directed Rs. 10 lakh compensation to manual scavengers’ family who died due to asphyxiation


“The shameful practice of making persons belonging to the underprivileged and poorest sections of Indian society undertake the hazardous manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks continues unabated notwithstanding the enactment of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. It shocks the judicial conscience, as it should the society’s collective conscience”, said the Odisha High Court in a suo motu case related to the death of two young men in Cuttack, during manual scavenging on April 15.

The court referred to an Indian Express report and said, “The condition of the third worker was critical. Reportedly, one of the sanitation workers entered the sewer line, which was over 15 feet deep, became unconscious inside the tank due to asphyxiation. Two other sanitation workers went inside to rescue him, but they too fell unconscious. The three were brought out with the help of firefighters and rushed to the SCB Medical College & Hospital, Cuttack. The hospital authorities declared two of them, Bishnu Naik of Badamba and T. Prabhakar of Pattapol area of Cuttack, dead, whereas the third one, S. Siba Rao was stated to be receiving treatment.”

The Bench comprising Chief Justice Dr. S Muralidhar and Justice BP Routray cited another incident when two sanitation workers, Sunaram Sardar (55) hailing from Jharkhand and Silup Birua (25) from Mayurbhanj engaged in the maintenance of a sewage tank at Brahmeswar Bagh area under Badagada police limits in the city and died of asphyxiation on March 19.

The Bench remarked, “It is inexplicable that a democratic country governed by the Constitution, the Preamble to which assures to all Indians social justice, equality of status and of opportunity, fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual, should witness, and condone, in the 21st century, the deplorable practice of making humans enter sewer lines and septic tanks that require cleaning, without protective gear, and in that process sacrifice their lives for the better health of their fellow beings.

The court opined that when Article 17, that abolishes the practice of untouchability, was introduced, it was with the hope that the practice of untouchability in general and manual scavenging in particular would not continue in a free and independent India.

The High Court has taken cognisance of the fact that the Secretary, Housing & Urban Development Department, has ordered a joint probe into the Cuttack incident by the Deputy Commissioner (Enforcement), Cuttack Municipal Corporation and the Sadar Tahsildar, Cuttack. “Further it appears that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has called for a report on the incident at Bhubaneswar”, said the court.

As the court took suo motu notice of the tragic deaths of the sanitation workers, it has announced compensation of Rs.10 lakhs each to be given to the families of the deceased workers. The Court is also set to examine the various legal issues that arise from such incidents, including the applicability of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and the Rules thereunder, in case the manual scavenger belongs to these castes.

The Bench has further issued a notice to State of Odisha, Housing and Urban Development Department, Government of Odisha, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe Welfare Department, Government of Odisha, Public Health Engineering Organization, Government of Odisha, Collector, Cuttack, Collector, Khurda at Bhubaneswar, Cuttack Municipal Corporation, Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation and the LC Infra Project Private Limited  that is engaged in the maintenance works of the sewage tanks in the city of Bhubaneswar.

The State has been asked to file an affidavit before the next date of hearing, listing out the steps it has taken thus far to implement, in letter and spirit, the various provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 and the Rules thereunder, as well as the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.

The matter will be heard on May 10, 2021.

The order may be read here: 



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