Investigate death of Manual Scavengers, initiate criminal proceedings: Plea in SC

Investigate death of Manual Scavengers, initiate criminal proceedings: Plea in SC

Murali Krishnan

A public interest litigation petition has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking an investigation into the deaths of manual scavengers and initiation of criminal proceedings against local authorities, agencies and contractors who directly or indirectly engaged them to work.

The petition filed by NGO Criminal Justice Society of India through advocate Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi seeks to affix liability and accountability on government office bearers & officers pertaining to their dereliction of duty and negligent role in failing to curb the employment of manual scavengers in the country.

The petition states that Manual Scavengers are subjected to inhuman working conditions by being exposed to disease-ridden sewage and pits, wherein they are forced to work without any protective gear.

Such unsafe working conditions result in either the manual scavengers contracting chronic or acute diseases, or suffering injuries resulting in their untimely demise. In many such cases, no compensation is awarded by the state to the next of kin, the petition contends.

The petition traces the history of legislative framework intended to abolish the practice of manual scavenging.

The first attempt at outlawing the practice came in 1993, when the Central government enacted the The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.

The narrow definition of a “manual scavenger” covered only those cleaning dry latrines. It excluded manhole workers (sewer workers), scavengers cleaning septic tanks, open defecation, and railway tracks. The Act also lacked a clause on rehabilitation of manual scavengers.

Further, since the 1993 Act fell under the State List, several states refused to adopt it, while others framed their respective acts.

Since its implementation, not a single case was registered across India under the Act and the government had no option but to bring in a new law. Thus, Parliament enacted The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

The petition also sets out some data as regards manual scavengers.

“As of 2018, it is estimated that India still has 26 lakh dry latrines and the Safai Karmachari Andolan, which has campaigned for the eradication of manual scavenging since 1995 estimates that between 2014 and 2016, nearly 1,500 people have died while cleaning septic tanks across India. Astonishing, between 1993 and 2013, no convictions were recorded for violation of the Act of 2013.

Recently, in an article published by The Indian Express it was reported that 1 manual scavenger persons dies while cleaning sewers and sceptic tanks every five days sincethe beginning of 2017. At least 300 people have died doing such work since 2017. The National Commission for SafaiKaramchari said that as per their records at least 123 people have died in sewer deaths and estimated at least another 612 people have died since 1993.Karnataka, which has over 15,000 manual scavengers, recorded 60 deaths related to manual scavenging, between 2008 and 2016.”

However, the data submitted by the States and Union Territories in relation to the number of dry latrines and manual scavengers showed “a severe mismatch”.

“As of December 2015, Telangana reported 1,57,321 dry latrines but zero manual scavengers, a barely believable figure. Himachal Pradesh declared 854 dry latrines in the state but zero manual scavengers, while Chandigarh reported 4,391 dry latrines but only 3 manual scavengers. The numbers clearly show the reluctance of State Governments to identify the existence of manual scavenging as a prevalent practice. Rajasthan, Punjab and West Bengal were the only states which reported an increase in the number of manual scavengers in the last two years.”

Further, there is discrepancy in the data provided by the States with regard to the number of deaths recorded, the petition states.

It has been contended that despite over 1500 deaths in the last 5 years, as per the data collected by the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, which is in no way complete and conclusive of the actual number of deaths, no convictions have been recorded in relation to these deaths. This, the petitioner alleges, is how lightly the problem has been looked at by state administrations.

On the above grounds, the petitioner has, inter alia, made the following prayers:

Direct the Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories to place on record their respective status reports reflecting the number of manual scavengers engaged or employed either directly or indirectly since 1993;

Direct the Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories to place on record their respective status report reflecting the number of existing and constructed insanitary and dry latrines since 1993;

Direct Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories and appropriate authority of the Indian Railways to investigate into the death of manual scavengers and initiate criminal proceedings u/s 304 r/w 107/119 of the Indian Penal Code,1860 against the local authorities, agencies, contractors and any other officials/persons pertaining to death of persons either directly or indirectly employed or engaged by them, as manual scavengers.

Read the petition below.

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