With one manual scavenger reportedly dying at work every five days despite India having declared manual scavenging illegal in 1993, the Criminal Justice Society of India has moved the Supreme Court seeking initiation of criminal proceedings for culpable homicide not amounting to murder against officials, agencies, contractors or any other person involved in engaging or employing manual scavengers resulting in their death at work.
The petition prays for directions to the Centre, the states and the Union Territories to bring on record the actual number of persons engaged in manual scavenging and also the number of persons who have died since 1993 while working as manual scavengers so that FIRs can be registered in all such cases under IPC Section 304 read with IPC Section 107/ 119.
It also seeks directions to the Chief Divisional Personnel Officers of the Indian Railways to place on record their respective status report reflecting the number of manual scavengers engaged or employed either directly or indirectly since 1993, besides a direction to the National Human Rights Commission and Chief Secretaries of all states and Union Territories to submit a report reflecting the manual scavenger deaths that have occurred since 1993.
The Criminal Justice Society of India, through its counsel Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi, says, "Despite a prohibition on employment of persons as manual scavengers, this age-old banished tradition continues. The Manual Scavengers are thus subjected to inhuman working conditions by being exposed to diseased sewages and pits; wherein the said scavengers are forced to work without any protective gears. The aforementioned unsafe working conditions result in either the manual scavengers contracting chronic or acute diseases or suffering injuries, for which no medical-care facilities are in place; or may result in the unfateful and untimely demise of the manual scavengers."
The petition cites a news article published in a leading daily which reported that as per the official data, there is one manual scavenging death every five days.
To make it worse, manual scavengers are employed at low wage rates of Rs. 150 to Rs. 200 per day, that too for excruciatingly toiling for nearly 10 to 12 hours.
No conviction for death during manual scavenging
The petition rues how despite manual scavenging being declared illegal in 1993 by way of The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, no case has been registered in over hundreds of deaths caused during manual scavenging.
"Safai Karmachari Andolan, which has campaigned for the eradication of manual scavenging since 1995 estimates that between 2014 and 2016, nearly 1,500 people have died while cleaning septic tanks across India. Between 1993 and 2013, no convictions were recorded for violation of the Manual Scavenging Act. This shows the apathy of state governments and local authorities towards the practice. Karnataka, which has over 15,000 manual scavengers, recorded 60 deaths related to manual scavenging, between 2008 and 2016. Even worse, no convictions were recorded in relation to these deaths, showing how lightly the problem was looked at by the state administration," it says.
"Further as reported, as per the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) 2011, rural Maharashtra alone has 65,181 households where at least one person is employed as a manual scavenger, accounting for 35 per cent of the total 1.82 Lakh such households in rural India. Second highest manual scavengers are found in Madhya Pradesh at 23,105," says the petition.
It cites another article to say that "[m]ore than 600 people have died while cleaning septic tanks and sewers across the country in the past 25 years, according to data collated by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK)".
According to another news report cited in the petition, a study was conducted by the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan on 51 cases in 11 states involving the deaths of 97 manual scavengers and minor to serious injuries to 70 surviving manual scavengers across the country.
"The report states that 37 per cent of those who died were in the age group of 15-25, another 35 per cent were between 25 and 35 years of age while 23 per cent was in the age group of 35-45 years. That only in 18 cases (35%) an FIR u/s 304A IPC, 1860 was filed but no arrest except one case was made. Moreover, mandatory compensation of Rs. 10 Lakh was awarded in only 16 cases. Likewise, not one child from these families has received the government's pre-matric scholarships meant for them," says the petition.
It said the apex court, in the case of Safai Karmachari Andolan And Ors. v. Union of India And Ors., had said that the states must work towards rehabilitation of manual scavengers which in turn means to reduce the number of manual scavengers in the country furthermore, directing that in the event of death of a manual scavenger, the next of kin is entitled to a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh, which has to be borne by the state government.
The petition impleads the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, Indian Railways and all the states and Union Territories.
Rare cases of action taken
The petition cites some cases where action was taken against those employing persons as manual scavengers.
"In March 2017, Byappanahalli police in Bengaluru registered a case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, against a contractor for employing 3 manual scavengers who died during cleaning of sewers," it says.
It is to be noted that on September 25 last year, after the death of six persons who were engaged as manual scavengers, the Chief Minister of Delhi held a meeting with the State-Level Monitoring Committee on manual scavenging which was directed to set standard operating procedures (SOPs) for monitoring private housing complexes/societies where hiring of people for sewer cleaning is concerned and informed that in case of death of a person employed as a manual scavenger, the District Magistrate of the said area would be held responsible and could be penalized u/s 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Penal Code. Furthermore, the person in-charge for cleaning of the septic tank or sewer will face charges u/s 304 and not u/s 304A (causing death by negligence) of the Penal Code, 1860.
Read the Petition Here