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Allegations About Urban Local Bodies Engaging Contractors To Carry Out Manual Scavenging: Madras HC Seeks State's Response

Sebin James
10 Feb 2022 3:28 AM GMT
Allegations About Urban Local Bodies Engaging Contractors To Carry Out Manual Scavenging: Madras HC Seeks States Response
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In a writ petition filed by NGO Safai Karamchari Andolan for the eradication of manual scavenging from Tamil Nadu, Madras High Court has asked the state government to file a reply to the specific allegations made about urban local bodies in a 2021 writ miscellaneous petition.The Special Government Pleader has been granted four weeks time to file the reply.The first bench of Acting...

In a writ petition filed by NGO Safai Karamchari Andolan for the eradication of manual scavenging from Tamil Nadu, Madras High Court has asked the state government to file a reply to the specific allegations made about urban local bodies in a 2021 writ miscellaneous petition.

The Special Government Pleader has been granted four weeks time to file the reply.

The first bench of Acting Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice D. Bharatha Chakravarthy has observed that they will be taking up the issues in the prayer of the petitioner one by one and issuing directions. The court acknowledged that the tenders must be terminated and urban local bodies employing manual scavengers through contractors has to be done away with. When the counsel was faced with the question of whether he is aware of any municipal corporations still employing manual scavengers through contractors, the counsel replied that he wasn't sure.

"These issues must be taken to a logical conclusion", Acting Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari remarked.

The second prayer of the petitioner in the original writ petition pertains to directing the state machinery to launch FIRs immediately in case of all persons suspected of engaging manual scavengers.

When the court asked the petitioner counsel, Advocate Srinath Sridevan, about the number of persons that have died in Tamil Nadu recently from manual scavenging, he responded that the tally stood at 44 according to his sources. He also made a reference to the tabular column on the reported deaths he has given in the WMP 6849/ 2021 for the years 2019, 2020 and 2021 based on whether such deaths occurred inside sewers/ septic tanks.

The counsel also iterated the petitioner's stand that the quantum of compensation paid for deaths of manual scavengers must be increased from Rs 10 lakhs.

Importantly, the Madras High Court gave elaborate directions on 8th September, 2021, noting that the Municipality Heads will be personally liable in case any person is found to be indulging in manually cleaning the sewers.

"It must be made clear by the appropriate department of the State to all heads of Municipal Corporations and Municipalities in the State that any manual scavenging death within the jurisdiction of the relevant Municipality or Corporation will result in the Commissioner or Chairperson or the like controlling authority of the relevant body to face criminal charges and be subjected to immediate arrest", the court had noted then.

The counsel also drew the attention of the court to the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 and pointed out that the persons engaging manual scavengers and the local bodies alike must be subjected to prosecution.

"State Government says in its report that they launched FIRs against 34 persons. However, only two Municipality aihtorities have been booked for the same.Their latest report says that they have been implementing a 'zero tolerance' policy against manual scavenging while the full list of deaths reported as filed on 4th March, 2021 implies otherwise", the counsel added.

The counsel also made a submission referring to the response of State Government/ Urban Local Bodies about the subsequent deaths due to manual scavenging. The counsel also made a soecial reference to Villupuram Municiplaity's counter affidavit that termed one of the deaths as a 'unexpected mishap while inside the sewers'. Some other Municipalities have also taken the stand that the manual scavengers 'slipped and died', he pointed out. The Corporations were responsible to ensure that no such instances happen in the first place according to the counsel.

Thereafter, the Acting Chief Justice called the special government pleader and apprised her that three questions are lingering: i) If the state government/ urban local bodies had the knowledge about permitting manual scavenging or not, ii) the issue of compensation that must be paid for the deaths of manual scavengers, iii) the extent of actions on persons engaged in manaul scavenging work as per Sections 5, 6 and 7 of  the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

The Special Government Pleader, in her oral reply, informed the court that a status report was filed on 4th November, 2021 by the Respondents. It makes clear that the state endorses a 'zero tolerance policy' towards manual scavenging.

"From 2015, no persons have been engaged by authorities for manual scavenging. For the 44 persons mentioned by the counsel, Rs 10 Lakhs each were paid to 38 persons. A few persons succumbed to death due to other reasons or in private residences", the governement pleader clarified.

However, Advocate Srinath Sridevan chose to disagree with the above submission by taking the court through the affidavit in WMP 6849/ 2021 that enlists the manual scavenging deaths in 2019 including those deaths arising out of municipal corporations engaging contractors. Even 15 year old and 17 year old boys have died in Chennai Corporation due to this work, Advocate Srinath Sridevan asserted.

WMP 6849/ 2021 also submits that the number of FIRs registered alone wouldn't be sufficent and the state should divulge i) the number of chargesheets filed, ii) stage of prosecution and, iii) successful convictions under the 2013 Act. It also seeks directions for implementation of effective rehabilitation measures for the families of manual scavengers as stipulated by the Supreme Court in Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India (2014).

The matter will be next heard on 9th March, 2022.

On 10th November, 2021, the bench of former Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P.D. Audikesavalu opined that Rs 10 lakhs compensation for sewer deaths as fixed by the Supreme Court in 2014 may be inadequate.

"State could consider 2014 as the base year and then peg the increase to the rise in wholesale price index or any other relevant index for determining the appropriate amount of compensation", the court had noted then.

Later, Madras High Court directed the state to submit a report detailing i) the quantum of compensation paid to the families of deceased manual scavengers so far, and ii) rehabilitation measures undertaken for the benefit of family members of those manual scavengers.

Case Title: Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union Of India & Ors.

Case No: WP/17380/2017(PIL)

Click Here To Read/ Download Order


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