New Delhi - Manual scavenging is a dehumanizing practice in which individuals, often from marginalized sections of society, are tasked with cleaning unsanitary sewage systems without adequate safety measures. This form of bonded labour has endured in our traditional society, even after legislation aimed at eradicating it.
Recognizing the urgency of eliminating this practice, the Supreme Court has instructed the central and state governments to phase it out. Strict enforcement of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, is imperative. During the verdict, Justice Bhat quoted Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, stating, "Ours is a battle not for wealth or power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality," highlighting the complexity of the issue.
This is not the first time such measures have been taken. In 2014, the Supreme Court issued directives to address this issue effectively. The directives included providing financial compensation to the families of deceased manual scavengers who lost their lives in hazardous conditions, with a stipulated compensation of Rs 10 lakhs. The directions also called for an end to manual scavenging on railway tracks, support for women engaged in manual scavenging, access to the legitimate rights of manual scavengers, and prioritizing justice and rehabilitation. However, the issue still persists. Recent revelations from the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment have unveiled a stark reality: out of India's 766 districts, only 508 have declared themselves free from manual scavenging.
According to an RTI query filed by The Wire, between 1993 and 2019, only around 50% of the families of sewer cleaning workers who died received the full compensation of Rs 10 lakhs each. In several cases, the compensation amount was less than Rs 10 lakhs. The report also revealed that "814 people are officially reported to have died during sewer cleaning in 20 states since 1993, out of which full compensation of Rs 10 lakhs has been granted in only 455 cases. However, this figure of sewer-related deaths is still incomplete, and the NCSK is continuously seeking additional information."
When questioned about these deaths in Parliament in July 2023, Minister Ramdas Athawale stated that there was "no report of people currently engaged in manual scavenging in the country." This persistent denial by government officials raises doubts about the implementation of the recent directives. The continual denial of the existence of manual scavengers could prove detrimental.
In June this year, highlighting that Tamil Nadu has recorded the highest number of manual scavenging deaths in the country, with 225 lives lost between 1993 and 2023, National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Chairman M Venkatesan urged the state to create awareness and make sure that machineries are being used instead of manual labour for scavenging works.
This process is yet to be mechanized. In 2022, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) informed the Rajya Sabha that it "could not confirm the presence of insanitary latrines," concluding that "manual scavenging does not exist." This correlation does not make sense, as the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act, 2013, encompasses not only dry toilets but also the cleaning of sewage and septic tanks. The ministry, while maintaining this stance, also "reported in the Lok Sabha the death of 340 people involved in the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks in the five years before December 2020." Whether called a manual scavenger, sewage cleaner, or sanitation worker, this work contradicts the PEMSR act of 2013.
The majority of manual scavengers belong to caste groups traditionally situated at the bottom of the social hierarchy, often limited to performing menial or unpleasant work as a means of subsistence. Their caste-assigned occupation reinforces the societal stigma that they are considered dirty or "untouchable," perpetuating widespread discrimination. Typically, men are assigned the physically taxing task of cleaning sewers and septic tanks, while women are tasked with cleaning dry toilets, open defecation sites, gutters, and drains.
The Human Rights Watch organization quoted Ashif Shaikh, convener of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, stating that "the manual carrying of human feces is not a form of employment but an injustice akin to slavery. It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits and is central to the violation of their human rights."
On October 21, activist Bezwada Wilson posted on X (formerly Twitter), saying, "#JaiBhim | The only way to end manual scavenging is to change the social mindset. Significant compensation alone is not a deterrent without establishing accountability. #Action2023 campaign against sewer and septic tank deaths in Nandyal, AP. #StopKillingUs #DalitLivesMatter."
A bench comprising Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Aravind Kumar issued directions in the case of Dr. Balram Singh vs. Union of India and others. The directives require the government to ensure that no one manually enters sewers to clean them, extending to all statutory bodies, corporations, railways, cantonments, and related agencies. The directive also applies to municipalities and local bodies.
The central, state, and union territories are directed to "ensure that full rehabilitation measures, including employment for the next of kin, education for the wards, and skill training, are provided to sewage workers and their families, especially in cases of death."
Previously, the compensation for manual scavenging-related deaths was fixed at ten lakhs. However, the court observed that this amount remained unchanged for decades and decided to raise it to thirty lakhs. The bench stated, "If the dependents of any victim have not received such an amount, the above amount shall be payable to them. Furthermore, this shall be the standard compensation going forward."
Victims who suffer from disabilities due to this inhumane work deserve compensation. The minimum compensation should not be less than ten lakhs. If the disability is permanent and the person is unable to contribute to their family's income, the compensation cannot be less than twenty lakhs.
The National Commission for Safai Karamchari, National Commission for Scheduled Castes, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, and the Secretary of the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment will collaborate to conduct a comprehensive survey within the next three months, followed by a yearly assessment. To ensure the success of this survey, all relevant stakeholders will receive appropriate training and education modules.
Manual scavenging is a complex issue that intersects with issues of humanity and casteism. The court has taken various steps to combat this still-prevalent problem. Time will tell whether the recent directions will bring about any meaningful change.