Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Supreme Court awards compensation for sewer deaths since 1993

Three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam also criminalized entering sewer lines without safety gear

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday awarded a compensation of 10 lakh each for the families of all the manual scavengers who have died in sewerage work since 1993. It also criminalized entering sewer lines without safety gear.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam said, “Sewer deaths—entering sewer lines without safety gear should be made a crime even in emergency situations. Identify the families of all the persons who have died in sewerage work (manholes, septic tanks) since 1993 and award compensation of 10 lakh for each such death to the family members."

India banned manual scavenging about two decades ago, but the inhuman practice continues.

To prevent future generations of the community involved in such scavenging from continuing with this “traditional occupation", the apex court said proper rehabilitation is required and directed the Indian Railways, the largest employer of manual scavengers, to end the practice.

“Railways should take time-bound strategy to end manual scavenging on the tracks," the court said.

The court noted that manual scavenging is still rampant in many states and continuing “unabated" despite the existence of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, which not only banned manual scavenging but also mandated the demolition of all dry toilets in the country.

Manual scavenging is a term used for the practice of physically removing human excrement from dry toilets with bare hands, brooms and metal scrappers. About 95% of the manual scavengers are dalits who clean the so-called night soil, mostly from the toilets of the upper castes. On 7 September, Parliament passed a law that was an improvement on the 1993 legislation, prohibiting the employment of manual scavengers by prescribing stringent punishment, including imprisonment of up to five years. However, not much has changed on the ground.

About 750,000 families still work as manual scavengers, according to the 2011 Census, and most of them live in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir.

Though many states deny the existence of such people, activists estimate the number to be more than 1.2 million, especially because the government data doesn’t include the railway employees who have to clean excrement from rail tracks because Indian trains lack a proper waste-disposal system.

“The data collected by the petitioners makes it abundantly clear that the practice continues unabated. Dry latrines continue to exist notwithstanding the fact that the 1993 Act was in force for nearly two decades. States have acted in denial of the 1993 Act and the constitutional mandate to abolish untouchability," the Supreme Court said.

The judgement was in response to a writ petition filed by Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organization that is fighting to eradicate manual scavenging, seeking the strict enforcement of the law.

The court directed all the state governments and union territories to fully implement the Act and take appropriate action against non-implementation as well as violation of the provisions contained in the 2013 Act.

In 2003, the Comptroller and Auditor General evaluated the “National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their Dependents" and found that it had failed to achieve its objectives even after 10 years of implementation. It pointed out that although funds were available much of it was unspent.

In 2011-12, the Union budget allotted 100 crore to the Self Employment Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers, but this was subsequently lowered to 35 crore, Mint reported on 30 September 2013. In 2012-13, the budget allotted 98 crore for the same scheme.

The ministry of social justice and empowerment had said the budget was reduced to 20 crore as there was “no pending list of manual scavengers for rehabilitation". It said the amount was spent surveying the situation, not on rehabilitation.

The Supreme Court has on several occasions directed the Centre and state governments to take steps towards the monitoring and implementation of the Act. “Under the directions of this court, the states are obligated by law to collect data and monitor the implementation of the Act," the court said on Thursday.

The 27-page judgement also said that the children of manual scavengers should be entitled to scholarships as per the relevant scheme of the Central or state governments. “At least one member of their family, shall be given training in livelihood skill and be paid monthly stipend. At least one adult member shall be given subsidy and concessional loan for taking up an alternative occupation on sustainable basis," it said.

Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan, the petitioner in the case, welcomed the judgement. “This is the end of our legal battle but we still have to fight for our rights and justice," Wilson said.

Close