Oct 27, 2023

The Supreme Court Issues Directions Against Manual Scavenging

Recently, while hearing a PIL filed by Dr Balram Singh about the complete eradication of manual scavenging in India, the Supreme Court directed the Union and State Governments to strictly implement the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013. This law is intended to completely eradicate the process of manual cleaning of sewers and ensure that no individual has to manually enter a sewer. 

Let us understand what the law prohibits and what the court’s directions were about implementing this law.

Who is a manual scavenger?
Any person who has been employed to handle undecomposed human waste from an insanitary latrine, open drain or pit or railway track is a manual scavenger. The person could have been employed by anyone— by someone  from their village or by an agency or contractor. Any person who has been employed to clean human waste and does so with the help of the appropriate protective gear and equipment will not be considered a manual scavenger.

Employing someone as a manual scavenger
The punishment for employing a manual scavenger, for a first-time offence is jail time up to one year as well as a fine up to Rs.50,000. If someone commits the offence again, then the punishment is jail time up to two years and a fine up to Rs.1,00,000.

Employing a person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank
The punishment for employing a person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or septic tank for a first-time offence is jail time up to 2 years and a fine up to Rs. 2,00,000. If someone commits the offence again, then the punishment is jail time is up to 5 years and fine up to Rs. 5,00,000.

A company employing someone as a manual scavenger
When a company commits the offence of manual scavenging, not only will it be considered guilty of the crime, but so will any employees of that company who allowed the offence to take place. This can include directors, managers, secretaries, and other officers of the company.

Directions of the Supreme Court

In Dr Balram Singh v Union of India & ors., the Supreme Court issued the following directions : 

  1. The Union should ensure that manual scavenging is eradicated in a phased manner and issue directions to all statutory bodies including corporations, railways, cantonments, as well as agencies under its control that any sewer cleaning work cannot require people to manually enter sewers. 
  2. States and Union Territories should also include these directions issued by the Union in their own guidelines and apply them to all municipalities and local bodies within their territories. 
  3. The government  must ensure that full rehabilitation (including employment to the next of kin, education to the wards and skill training) measures are taken in respect of sewage workers, and those who die;
  4. The  government will have to pay Rs. 30 Lakh as compensation for any sewer deaths. This has been increased from the earlier compensation of Rs. 10 Lakh, as decided in 1993. In case any dependents have still not been paid, they will now be paid this revised amount. 
  5. If any victims are now living with a disability, they will be paid a minimum of Rs. 10 lakh as compensation. In case of a permanent disability due to which they cannot earn a living, they will be paid more than Rs. 20 Lakh as compensation. 
  6. The government should create an accountability mechanism which includes cancelling the contract and monetary liability, to hold any agency to whom the work has been outsourced, in case of sewer deaths. 
  7. The government should devise a model contract  for employing any cleaning agencies or corporations. 
  8. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis NCSK, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes NCSC and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes NCST, along with the Secretary, Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, should conduct a national survey within the next one year to understand how many people are still employed as manual scavengers. 
  9. Models should be prepared to educate and train all the committees that conduct the survey. 
  10. The government must set up scholarships to ensure that the dependents of those who have either died or suffered disabilities, are given meaningful education. 
  11. The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) should be part of the consultations to frame these policies. It should also frame appropriate models for easy disbursement of compensations. 
  12. The government should coordinate with the NCSK, NCSC, NCST to set up state and district level committees and commissions in a time bound manner. 
  13. The NCSK, NCSC, NCST and the Union Government should coordinate and prepare training and education modules, for information and use by district and state level agencies, under the 2013 Act.
  14. A portal and a dashboard, containing information relating to sewer deaths, and victims, the status of compensation disbursement, rehabilitation measures taken, and existing and available rehabilitation policies should be developed and launched at an early date.

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