MANUAL SCAVENGERS: AN EXTENSION OF THE PANDEMIC OF UNTOUCHABILITY

          Our country is widely known for numerous cultures, traditions and believes. It is these values and morals which make us distinct in the whole world and the reason why even the western civilization is looking forward and adopting our traditional culture. This clearly shows the importance and impact of our values and morals on an individual’s lifetime. It is our culture which shows that even a person can make a difference in the society even though his soul may not be present on the planet. But for every good thing which we see and adapt from our traditions, there is always other side of the coin which should be forgotten or not extended. That would be the practice of untouchability within the human community and the prime example of such practice are the manual scavengers who are engaged and cast aside by the society because of the work they are occupied with.

          Manual Scavengers are regarded as despicable humans and are considered to be segregated part of the society. But in reality it is the job which defines the person here. Even the father of Indian Constitution Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar commonly known as Dr.B.R.Ambedkar said, “In India, a man is not a scavenger by birth irrespective of the question of whether he does scavenging or not”. It is clear from the words that the mentality and approach of the people creates the apartheid.

          The job of manual scavenging in regarded as inhumane and a violation of basic human rights. It constitutes problems and issues that encompass domains of health and occupation, human rights, social justice, gender, caste and human dignity. There are numerous precedents set by Hon’ble Supreme Court of India determining the scope of right to life and health as basic human rights but yet the National Survey has found that around 50,000 families are still working as manual scavengers and the maximum number of these families belongs to states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and the remaining constitutes other states. It is a practice of manually cleaning, carrying, handling and disposing human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. The scavengers manually collect the human waste from the pits and sewers and carry them to long distance pits of dumps on their heads using buckets along with other regular tools. It can mostly be seen and observed in the rural areas where there no proper sewage channels or systems to dispose of human excrete and other sewage wastes. These places are also the breeding grounds of discrimination where such activities exist because of the prevailing caste system. It was surveyed that around 56% of the Indian urban homes are connected to sewer lines whereas only about 36% of the Indian rural areas have no drainage system or the system requires manual scavenging for cleaning and sanitization. 

          It was because of these reason combined with the safety of personnel working is such conditions like sewers, septic tanks and manholes, it was deemed to be illegal by The Prohibition of Employment As Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 which got President’s assent on 18th September 2013. The Act was passed keeping in view the rising death rates of the manual scavengers due to such harsh working conditions. The condition where a person is pushed to work inside a septic tank to clean in an unbearable condition and environment that to without any protection on the body is considered one of the important reasons to enact such Act. The Act punishes the employer with imprisonment upto 2 years and fine of one lakh or both for manual scavenging and

          Since the enactment of the legislation in 2013, an end has been put to the practice of any form of manual scavenging, disposing of, carrying and handling of human waste etc. in the country. The Act has indeed made it an offence with punishment to employ any person as manual scavenger in order to clean any such insanitary places and without any protection gear to protect them from the hazardous environment in such situations. Even though the Supreme Court has ordered the abolition of the manual scavenging and asked the Government to provide financial support and assistance to those family members and rehabilitation to the individuals along with family members of scavengers, there has been no reduction in the appoints of such individuals and the manual scavenging remains unabated till dated in the country.  In 2003, the Safai Karmachari Andola (SKA) filed a petition before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India with respect to implementation of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 as earlier only dry latrine scavenging was only cowered under the definition of manual scavenging. It was directed by the Hon’ble Court to pay Rs.10 lakh as compensation for each case of sewer death which was upon the state agencies to bear as the court put the liability and responsibility upon the states. It is because of the high density of toxic fumes and gases which are present inside the pits, sewers, manholes etc. which creates the problem as the scavengers are completely unaware of the same.

          The major promoters of the Manual Scavenging are the Indian Railways since the beginning. It is because of the old age system of the railways and its trains which lead to the situation we are here in today’s world. It is because of the situation in the railways no proper or adequate waste disposal system in line, such a situation has arisen and it is the people who are facing the difficulties when working in such filth. An affidavit filed by the Indian Railways before the Hon’ble Delhi High Court in 2012 mentioned that only 504 bio-toilets were installed.

          Even though we are said to be living in 21st Century, it is still a phase where a legislation passed in not implemented to the mark which deflects or defeats the justice or the actual issue. Keeping in view the scenario and the condition, a cleanliness mission is also initiated by the Central Government under the name of “Swatch Bharat Mission”, where its main aim is to provide proper sanitation facility to every household in the country. It has indeed made a huge progress towards the accomplishment of the main problem but it can very well be said that the journey is not easy as it seems and the destination is still quite far away to reach. In Delhi, the Delhi Jal Board in 2017 has even acquired sewer machines for cleaning of the sewer lines but these machines are still not prevalent in other part of the countries. Another reason for such delay is the crucial aspect of fund allocations by the governments.

          It can very easily be said that only bringing the legislation into effect is not enough unless there is a substitute. It is important to provide an alternative as soon as possible in order to control the aspect of manual scavenging as the job is something which cannot be neglected or delayed and has to take place even though the machine for cleaning and sanitizing are not available. The human labour is the obvious alternative which is the biggest issue prevailing in the country. Steps should be taken by the government to remove this stigma which the workers carry along with the job by taking a community-centric approach in order to make sure the community is ready to accept and include them within their status, as it will lead to increase in job opportunities and acceptance where they are currently not considered.

Written by Shravan Chandrashekher, Associate, H.K. Law Offices

Published by meghachaturvedi

Associate Partner, H.K. Law Offices

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