Tuesday, April 20, 2021
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Manual scavenging: Supreme Court defers plea for making govt officers accountable for it

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, and Justices A.S. Bopanna & V. Ramasubramanian has listed the matter for hearing in the third week of August.

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The Supreme Court on Monday has deferred hearing a plea seeking directions to affix the liability and accountability on government office-bearers and officers pertaining to their dereliction of duty and negligent role in failing to curb the employment of manual scavengers.

The three-judge bench of Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian has listed the matter for hearing in the third week of August. 

During the hearing today, Advocate Ashima Mandla for the petitioner submitted that pleadings are not completed in this matter. Only 24 respondents have filed their counter-affidavit. 

The CJI said we can’t compel people to file a counter, we will proceed against them. Put up for hearing in August. Sometime in the third week of August. 

The present petition has been filed by NGO Criminal Justice Society of India by its General Secretary Ahmed Faraz Khan through Advocate Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi. 

The PIL prayed for directions for ascertaining the actual number of manual scavengers employed in the country since 1993; to estimate the number of dry/insanitary latrines existing or constructed since 1993; number of manual scavenger deaths in the country; actual number of manual scavengers who met with an untimely death since 1993; and to investigate into the aforementioned deaths and initiate criminal proceedings by registration of First Information Reports against the erring officials and contractors under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

According to the PIL, it is pertinent to note that the definitions of Safai Karamchari (Section 2(h) of National Commission for Safai Karamchari Act, 1993 and Rule 2(h) Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Rehabilitation Rules, 2013) and that of Manual Scavengers (Section 2(j) the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and 2(g) of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013) overlap to a certain extent as both the above-mentioned definitions deal with human excreta. However, the manual published in 2013 by Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, stated, “Safai karamcharis, per se, are not manual scavengers. All manual scavengers are safai karmcharis but all safai karmcharis are not manual scavengers.” Hence, the term “safai karamchari” is the genus, and the term “manual scavenger” is the species.

The petition filed by the NGO presents an astounding amount of data of deaths of manual scavengers.

  • As of 2018, it is estimated that India still has 26 lakh dry latrines and the Safai Karamchari 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.
  • Astoundingly, 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 one manual scavenger dies while cleaning sewers and sceptic tanks every five days since the beginning of 2017.
  • At least 300 people have died doing such work since 2017. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis 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.
  • In July 2016, a meeting was convened by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), where representatives of the states and union territories were asked to share data related to the number of dry latrines and manual scavengers.
  • The data submitted, however, 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 three manual scavengers.

Also Read: Supreme Court adjourns hearing of plea by children rescued from prostitution in Kolkata, plea seeks exemplary damages

The petition stated,

“Even worse, there appears to be a discrepancy in the data as provided by the states with regard to the number of deaths recorded. Despite over 1,500 deaths in the last five 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, showing how lightly the problem was looked at by the state administration. Furthermore, the Indian Railways is the largest employer of manual scavenger, yet, astonishingly no data pertaining to the number of persons engaged or employed directly or indirectly and consequent deaths has been provided by them.”

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  1. It is disgusting that this crucial matter has been put away till the third week of August, a full 5 months away.


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