Taking suo motu cognizance of news items published in the 'Sunday Tribune' on, September 29, with regards continuing practice of manual scavenging, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana on Thursday issued detailed "mandatory directions" to eliminate the twin evils of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging.
The court said,
"The employment or engagement of manual scavengers for cleaning of human excreta in sewer lines, septic tanks and manholes is violation of their human rights.
… The dignity of every individual including a dignified life is covered under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Article 42 provides that there should be just and humane conditions of work".
Considerably, manual scavenging was prohibited by the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which also prescribed for rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families.
The Act stipulates one-time cash assistance of Rs. 40,000/- to manual scavengers and their dependents, skilled development training for two years with a stipend Rs. 3000/- per month, and loans for sustainable livelihood projects up to Rs. 15 lacs at concessional rates of interest with a capital subsidy up to Rs. 3. 25 lacs.
Further, the Central Government had framed the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, requiring all Municipal bodies/ Panchayats to dispose all the waste garbage in a scientific method to avoid contamination of all rivers and seepage of harmful chemicals in underground water.
With regards disposal of medical waste, the Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules, 2016 had been put in place which prescribed as many as 20 steps to ensure scientific disposal of medical waste, including provisions for a safe, ventilated and secured location for storage of segregated biomedical waste.
Despite the aforementioned enactments, there were 91 scavengers in the State of Punjab, as per the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment and 30 persons had lost their lives in manholes across Punjab since 1993, as per the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, Nodal Agency for implementing self employment schemes for rehabilitation of manual scavengers.
Rather, the court noted that there is no segregation of municipal wastes and that medical waste is often disposed without proper treatment thus, "scavengers are exposed to viral and bacterial infections that affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. They live in deplorable conditions"
Taking note of the failure of the States to implement this Act, the bench of Acting Chief Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Harinder Singh Sidhu said,
"It is duty cast upon the States of Punjab, Haryana and U.T. Chandigarh to ensure that no person is engaged as manual scavengers. No person can be engaged or employed either directly or indirectly for hazardous cleaning of sewer or septic tanks manually. It is extra duty cast upon all the Municipal Corporations, Municipalities and Nagar Panchayats in the States of Punjab, Haryana and U.T. Chandigarh to ensure that all the sewers, septic tanks and others spaces are cleaned by using appropriate technological appliances".
In view thereof, the court declared all contracts or other instruments entered into for the purpose of manual scavenging in the States as void and issued the following mandatory directions:
With the aforesaid directions, the court said,
"The State and its agencies/instrumentalities cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to put in place effective mechanism for ensuring safety of the workers employed for maintaining and cleaning the sewage system. The human beings who are employed for doing the work in sewers cannot be treated as mechanical robots, who may not be affected by poisonous gases in the manholes". Reliance was placed on Delhi Jal Board v. National Campaign for Dignity & Rights of Sewerage & Allied Workers & Ors., (2011) 8 SCC 568.
The court further directed that:
Further, the following directions were issued to all local authorities such as Village Panchayats, Gram Panchayats, etc.:
The bench lastly clarified that all the Municipal Commissioners, Additional Commissioners, Deputy Commissioners, Executive Officers, Elected Members of the Municipalities, Municipal Corporations and Panchayati Raj Institutions throughout the States of Punjab and Haryana and the UT Chandigarh shall be personally responsible to ensure that no garbage is visible within their territorial jurisdiction.
The aforementioned directions were passed in the presence of Advocate General of Haryana, Baldev Raj Mahajan with Addl. A.G. of Haryana, Deepak Balyan; Addl. A. G. of Punjab, Suveer Sheokand; Advocate for Chandigarh, Sukhmani Patwalia; and Addl. Solicitor General of India, Satya Pal Jain with Advocate for Centre, Arvind Seth.
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