It is inexplicable that a democratic country governed by the Constitution, the Preamble to which assures to all Indians social justice, equality of status and of opportunity, fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual, should witness, and condone, in the 21st century, the deplorable practice of making humans enter sewer lines and septic tanks that require cleaning, without protective gear, and in that process sacrifice their lives for the better health of their fellow beings, observed the Orissa High Court on Monday.
The remarks have been made by a Division Bench compromising of Chief Justice Dr. S. Muralidhar and Justice BP Routray in a suo moto case pertaining to the tragic death of two young men in Cuttack, during manual scavenging on April 15.
As per a report of the New Indian Express, one of the sanitation workers entered the sewer line, which was over 15 feet deep, became unconscious inside the tank due to asphyxiation. Two other sanitation workers went inside to rescue him, but they too fell unconscious. The three were brought out with the help of firefighters and rushed to the Medical College. The hospital authorities declared two of them, brought dead, whereas the third one, was stated to be receiving treatment. All of them were in the age group of 30 to 35 years.
In another such incident, that occurred in Bhubaneswar on 19th March, 2021, two sanitation workers engaged in the maintenance of a sewage tank, died of asphyxiation. Both of them were rescued by Orissa fire brigade service, but were brought dead to the local hospital.
The Bench has taken suo moto cognizance of the incidents, that involved egregious violations of the mandatory provisions contained the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
"The shameful practice of making persons belonging to the underprivileged and poorest sections of Indian society undertake the hazardous manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks continues unabated notwithstanding the enactment of the PEMSR Act. It shocks the judicial conscience, as it should the society's collective conscience," the Bench said at the outset.
It said that when Article 17 was written into the Indian Constitution more than seventy years ago, abolishing untouchability, forbidding its practice in any form and declaring that enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law, it was with the hope that the practice of untouchability in general and manual scavenging in particular would not continue in a free and independent India.
However, in the backdrop of the two shocking incidents, the instant case has been registered to ensure that the directions of the Supreme Court in Safai Karmachari Andolan v. Union of India (2014) 11 SCC 224 and all the relevant provisions of the PEMSR Act and the Rules thereunder are implemented in letter and spirit.
The Court will also examine various legal issues that arise from such incidents, including the applicability of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and the Rules thereunder, in case the manual scavenger belongs to these castes.
Accordingly, the Court has issued notices to the following Parties:
- State of Odisha
- Housing & Urban Development Department, Government of Odisha
- Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribe Welfare Department, Government of Odisha
- Public Health Engineering Organization, Government of Odisha
- Collector, Cuttack
- Collector, Khurda at Bhubaneswar
- Cuttack Municipal Corporation
- Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation
- LC Infra Project Private Limited (engaged in the maintenance works of the sewage tanks in the city of Bhubaneswar)
The State of Odisha has been asked to file an affidavit before the next date, listing out the steps it has taken thus far to implement, in letter and spirit, the various provisions of the PEMSR Act and the Rules thereunder, as well as the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.
The affidavit shall also contain statistics relating to deaths of sanitation workers since 1993, the compensation paid in respect of each such death, whether the identified manual scavenger and/or sewer/septic tank cleaner has been rehabilitated and whether the parties who violated the law have been prosecuted and punished according to law.
Advocates Bibhu Prasad Tripathy and Pami Rath have been appointed as amicus curiae in the matter.
The matter is now fixed for 10th May, 2021.
Meanwhile, the Court has directed the concerned State authorities to pay a compensation of Rs.10 lakhs each is disbursed forthwith to the family of each of the sanitation workers who died in the aforementioned tragic incidents.
The Court has also ordered a probe into the incident and institution of relevant criminal proceedings as per the law.
Case Title: In Re: Deaths of Sanitation Workers