Madras High Court

Madras High Court: In a petition filed for seeking eradication of manual scavenging and rehabilitation of all scavengers to more dignified job opportunity within the State of Tamil Nadu, the division bench of SV Gangapurwala*, C.J. and Sathya Narayana Prasad, J. has issued the following guidelines to the authorities:

  • State Government was directed to frame a scheme for offering compassionate appointment to one member of the family of the deceased scavenger and the same is applicable only from the year 2017 when the present petition is filed.
  • To completely eradicate manual scavenging at least in a phased manner may be by the year 2026
  • To rehabilitate the manual scavengers by providing employment in the Group-IV posts according to their qualification by the Government.
  • To take stringent action against those engaging or employing persons for manual scavenging.
  • To provide protective and safety equipment, in accordance with the Act, in case of using the manual scavengers for sanitary works.
  • To ensure the clearing of sewer, septic tank, storm water drains etc. is completely mechanized.
  • To ensure the strict implementation and compliance of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.(‘Act of 2013’).
  • To sensitize sanitary workers and manual scavengers on the perils of manual scavenging and the prohibition, legislative provisions and various schemes/initiates available for their rehabilitation and skill development for alternative employment.
  • Compensation for the death fixed at Rs.30 lakh under Government Order, Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department, dated 23-1-2024 may be increased once in three years.
  • Compensation for the persons, who died pending the present petition i.e. from the year 2017 may be enhanced from Rs.10 lakh to Rs.20 lakh depending upon the injury and the same to be paid to the legal heirs of the person.
  • Compensation for the injury suffered by the person is fixed at Rs.10 lakh in Government Order, Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department, and Rs.20 lakh in the case of permanent disability, was directed to be paid to the persons, who suffered injuries/scavenging related ailments disabilities.
  • To issue identification cards, as permissible under the relevant statute to manual scavengers.
  • To provide free health checkups to manual scavengers in the Primary Health Centres or in the Government Hospital at the District Head Quarters or at the Revenue Divisional levels.
  • Ensure the adequacy of equipment for clearing of sewers

The petitioner has sought directions against the Union Government to stop using manual scavenging method; to take criminal action in cases of violation; to compensate fully for the deaths owing to manual scavenging; to use of machines for clearing septic tanks; and, to strictly enforce the provisions of the Act of 2013.

The Court said that the practice of manually cleaning human waste without any protective gear is a grave violation of human rights. The Bench noted that despite being outlawed in many countries, including India, manual scavenging continues to persist, perpetuating the cycle of oppression and discrimination faced by the individuals engaged in this hazardous profession, where they are exposed to a myriad of health hazards, including respiratory illnesses, skin diseases, and infections.

The Court remarked that despite assurances given by the authorities, the existence of various laws and policies prohibiting manual scavenging, the practice continues to persist due to deep-rooted social norms, caste-based discrimination, and systemic failures. The lack of effective enforcement mechanisms and social awareness further perpetuates the problem, allowing manual scavenging to thrive in the shadows of society.

The Court also remarked that “we boast of the ground-breaking growth, but still there exists a community which makes its living by entering septic tanks and manholes”.

The Courts suggested that efforts to eradicate manual scavenging should be taken forthwith with a view to prioritize the protection of human rights, dignity, and well-being of those engaged in this hazardous work. This requires a multi-faceted approach that includes legislative reforms, social awareness campaigns, skill development programs, and alternative livelihood opportunities for manual scavengers.

The Court said that the Government must take proactive measures to enforce existing laws, provide adequate protection and compensation to manual scavengers, and promote socio-economic empowerment initiatives to break the cycle of oppression and discrimination.

The Bench also added that the Civil society organizations, activists, and the media play a crucial role in raising awareness, advocating for policy reforms, and holding governments and employers of such manual scavenging methods accountable for the violation of human rights.

The Court said that the eradication of manual scavenging requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including governments, civil society organizations, employers, and communities. It is not only a moral imperative but also a legal obligation under international human rights laws to ensure the protection and well-being of all individuals, regardless of their caste, gender, or socio-economic status.

The Bench further said that sending a single human being down a sewer is nothing less than State sanctioned casteism, it is in complete contravention of Constitutional ethos.

Apart from the physical health risks, as per the Court manual scavenging also takes a toll on the mental health and well-being of those involved. The stigma and social ostracism associated with this work lead to feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and psychological distress among manual scavengers. The lack of alternative employment opportunities further perpetuates their socio-economic marginalization, trapping them in a vicious cycle of poverty and discrimination.

The Court viewed that manual scavenging is a bane on society that perpetuates the violation of human rights and dignity of marginalized communities. It is a stark reminder of the deep-rooted inequalities and discrimination that continue to persist in our society, highlighting the urgent need for collective action to eradicate this hazardous practice and ensure the socio-economic empowerment and well-being of manual scavengers.

Apart from the above-mentioned guidelines, the Court gave the following directions:

  • Filing FIRs only against the contractors is not sufficient. The FIR should be lodged against the head of the local body in question, maybe the Panchayat, Municipality, Municipal Corporation etc.
  • In the event any death or disability occurs during manual scavenging, in deserving cases, the FIR must be lodged against the following persons:
    1. Commissioner Death within a City Municipal Corporation.
    2. In cases arising in Chennai, the Senior Officers of the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board must also be arrayed as accused
    3. Municipal Commissioner — Death within a Municipality.
    4. Commissioner of Panchayat Union — Death within a Panchayat.

Concerning septic tanks, the Court said that every local body must have a dedicated officer to attend to septic tank cleaning. All septic tank cleaning must be done only through the local body. All septic tanks must be cleaned once every year, and the local body must maintain a record and find households and premises that do not empty every year.

Further, regarding educational facilities and scholarships, the Court said that the scheme must be widely published so that families of manual scavengers will come forward to claim the benefits.

The matter will next be taken up on 05-08-2024.

[Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India, 2024 SCC OnLine Mad 1045, Order dated 29-04-2024]

*Order by: Justice SV Gangapurwala

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