Widows of three manual scavengers get compensation and rehabilitation from Bombay HC

In a year where the government refused to accept any deaths due to manual scavenging, the court stepped in to recognise their rights

Bombay HC
Image: Live Law

 “This case should be an eye opener to all of us,” said the Bombay High Court while directing the concerned District Collector to compensate and rehabilitate widows of three manual scavengers, who lost their lives cleaning septic tanks in December 2019. Justices Ujjal Bhuyan and Madhav Jamdar directed compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs to be paid to Vimla Govind Chorotiya, Neeta Santosh Kalshekar and Bani Vishwajit Debnath, within a period of four weeks.

Their counsel, Isha Singh, referred to the supreme court ruling in Safai Karmachari Andolan (2014), to argue that in the case of death of manual scavengers while carrying out manual scavenging even in the private sector, there is strict liability on the State to pay compensation. That apart, she said, “The State must also take effective steps for rehabilitation of the family members of the deceased persons in terms of section 13 of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.”

The government opposed this argument, allegedly in an effort to evade paying compensation. The government pleader, Ms. P.H Kantharia, argued that since the death happened in the private sector, the head of the private sector is liable to pay compensation. She also argued that since the death happened inside the drainage tank of the person, that person is equally responsible and cannot escape liability. She referred to a government resolution passed on December 12, 2019, which states that the government would only help overseeing compensation by the private party and not dispense with compensation itself.

The Bench observed that the 2013 Act was meant to acknowledge the rights of persons engaged in sewage cleaning and cleaning tanks as well as persons cleaning human excreta on railway tracks under Articles 17 (Abolition of Untouchability) and 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution of India. However, the Act has failed to achieve this goal.

“The existing laws are not stringent enough to eliminate these evil practices. In view of above, there is a need to make comprehensive and stringent provisions for the prohibition of insanitary latrines and employment of persons as manual scavengers, rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families and to discontinue the hazardous manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks by the use of technology and for matters connected therewith,” read the order.

In addition to the compensation to the three women, the court was informed by the government that they will rehabilitate them in accordance with Section 13 of the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers Act, 2013 by providing their children scholarships. She highlighted how the petitioners would be included in the list of manual scavengers.

The court has also directed the Maharashtra government to give information to the Court with respect to the persons who died in the State as manual scavengers since the year 1993. They have also been directed to inform the court as to how many scavengers have been identified in the state and whether any compensation has been given to their families.

No deaths due to manual scavenging?

On July 28, 2021, Ramdas Athawale, the Social Justice and Empowerment Minister had informed Rajya Sabha that no deaths pertaining to manual scavenging has been reported in the last five years. Interestingly, this answer by Ramesh Athawale contradicts 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.

The central government has also claimed no deaths, despite the Karnataka high court’s observations on similar petitions related to the practice of manual scavenging, taking note of some deaths in the state. The court had also held that the practice of manual scavenging is inhuman and that it infringes the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21.

On February 2, 2021, the high court perused the memo filed by the State and other documents and remarked that it was “crystal clear that there is absolutely no compliance with the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.”

Hollow promises

Last year, SabrangIndia, on World Toilet Day (November 19), had reported that the government had announced that their aim is to eliminate manual scavenging across the country by August 2021. The Senior Minister ensured that no person needs to enter a sewer or septic tank, “unless absolutely unavoidable in the interest of greater public hygiene.”

At a webinar in New Delhi, Shri Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of State, Independent Charge, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, said, “We are today setting another milestone by launching the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge which aims to ensure that no life of any sewer or septic tank cleaner is ever lost again owing to the issue of hazardous cleaning.”

The Bombay HC order may be read here:



Centre claims that nobody died due to manual scavenging reported in the last 5 years!

Manual Scavengers: 340 deaths, yet Centre has no intention to make stricter laws!

Govt aims to eliminate manual scavenging by August 2021

Death of manual scavengers: Karnataka HC takes note of the grim situation

Manual Scavengers Act: Karnataka HC issues directions over implementation



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