Orissa High Court: A Division Bench of S. Muralidhar, CJ and B.P Routray, J., directed 10 lakh compensation to be paid to the grieving families and made noteworthy observations regarding the sorry plight of manual scavengers.

The present petition has been taken up suo motu after notice of the tragic deaths of sanitation workers in the two recent incidents one in Bhubaneshwar and other in Cuttack. In the first incident in Cuttack, two sanitation workers engaged in manually cleaning a sewer line died of asphyxiation. In the second incident in Bhubaneswar two sanitation workers, Sunaram Sardar (55) and Silup Birua (25) engaged in the maintenance of a sewage tank, died of Asphyxiation as they entered the septic tank that was over 25 feet deep, without any protective gear, and became unconscious due to asphyxiation.

The Court observed that it appears that in both incidents, there were egregious violations of the mandatory provisions contained in Section 7 read with Section 2 (1) (d) and Section 9 of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act i.e. PEMSR Act as well as Rules 3 to 8 of the PEMSR Rules, 2013.

The Court stated that the social evil involving deaths of sanitation workers and/or manual scavengers where they happen to belong from scheduled castes (SCs) or the scheduled tribes (ST), the provisions particularly Sections 2 (1) (bf) and 3 (1) (j) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 i.e. SC/ST POA Act might get attracted.

It was further observed that Article 17 abolishes untouchability, forbidding its practice in any form and declaring that enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law, 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 Court further relied on judgment Safai Karmachari Andolan v. Union of India, (2014) 11 SCC 224, the Supreme Court of India held that the PEMSR Act “expressly acknowledges Article 17 and Article 21 and rights of the persons engaged in sewage cleaning and cleaning tanks as well as persons cleaning human excreta on railway tracks.”

The Court further relied on judgment Delhi Jal Board v. National Campaign for Dignity & Rights of Sewerage & Allied Workers (2011) 8 SCC 568 wherein it was observed

“….no one would like to enter the manhole of sewage system for cleaning purposes, but there are people who are forced to undertake such hazardous jobs with the hope that at the end of the day they will be able to make some money and feed their family. They risk their lives for the comfort of others. Unfortunately, for last few decades, a substantial segment of the urban society has become insensitive to the plight of the poor and downtrodden including those, who, on account of sheer economic compulsions, undertake jobs/works which are inherently dangerous to life. People belonging to this segment do not want to understand why a person is made to enter manhole without safety gears and proper equipments. They look the other way when the body of a worker who dies in the manhole is taken out with the help of ropes and cranes. In this scenario, the Courts are not only entitled but are under constitutional obligation to take cognizance of the issues relating to the lives of the people who are forced to undertake jobs which are hazardous and dangerous to life.”

Thus the Court laid down comprehensive directions to be followed by the concerned authorities regarding compensation, criminal nature of the act, vigilance regarding such matters etc. In the instant case the court “…..requests the Secretary, Odisha State Legal Services Authority (OSLSA) to immediately contact the family of the victims, both in Cuttack and in Bhubaneswar, and if they need legal assistance, to forthwith inform both the AC”

In view of the above, matter was listed for 10-05-2021.[Death of sanitation Workers v. State of Odisha, 2021 SCC OnLine Ori 383, decided on 19-04-2021]

Arunima Bose, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.

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