Landmark judgement, Specifics 'Rubbish"


The Supreme Court of India, in a landmark judgement has ruled that the continuing manual scavenging in the country is a blatant violation of Article 17 of the Constitution of India.

Arrticle 17 states that “untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden”.


The Supreme court also empahtically stated that ruled that it was the duty of all state government, union territories and the central government “to fully implement the law and to take action against the violators”.


The judgement was particularly clear on compensation and rehabilitation in relation to manual scavenging.

For example, the Supreme Court directed the government to, “Identify families of all manual scavengers who have died in sewerage work since 1993 and award compensation of Rs.1 million for each such death to the dependent family members .

Dalit sewerage workers are rarely provided protective gear when being lowered into the sewers and sometimes die from inhaling the gases.

The court has been categorical that, “If the practice of manual scavenging has to be brought to a close and also to prevent future generations from the inhuman practice of manual scavenging, rehabilitation of manual scavengers will need to include:-

(a) Sewer deaths – entering sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime even in emergency situations. For each such death, compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs should be given to the family of the deceased.

(b) Railways– should take time bound strategy to end manual scavenging on the tracks.

(c) Persons released from manual scavenging should not have to cross hurdles to receive what is their legitimate due under the law.

(d) Provide support for dignified livelihood to safai karamchari women in accordance with their choice of livelihood schemes.


The court also directed the Indian Railways, which is the largest employer of manual scavengers in the country, to take time bound strategy to end manual scavenging on the tracks…


The court acknowledged the significance of the data provided by the petitioner Safai Karmachari Andolan, who filed the Writ Petition, “that the practice of manual scavenging continues unabated. Dry latrines continue to exist notwithstanding the fact that the 1993 Act was in force for nearly two decades. States have acted in denial of the 1993 Act and the constitutional mandate to abolish untouchability.”


It is estimated that around 1.3 million Dalits in India, mostly women, make their living through manual scavenging - a term used to describe the job of removing human excrement from dry toilets and sewers using basic tools such as thin boards, buckets and baskets, lined with sacking, carried on the head.


The Supreme Court judgement underscores of some of the key issues that organisations working to eradicate manual scavenging such as the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) and Jansahas, as well as organisations fighting for Dalit rights, have been raising at local, national and international level for years.


National convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan Bezwada Wilson said that, “this is a victory of manual scavengers who have been fighting across the country for their liberation against the denial of central and various state governments repeatedly.”


However, not everyone is so elated about the judgement as Wilson. Various human rights advocates like Ashif Shaikh, however take the judgement with a pinch of salt.


“We are happy about the new law,” he says, "But the specifics of implementation, which are decided by government committees, were “rubbish,”.


For instance, the text of the new law includes provisions for the rehabilitation of scavengers through a one-time cash stipend, plus access to scholarships and free vocational training. But the law's rules, which spell out how the law will be carried out, don't reflect the ambitious spirit of the law itself, according to Mr. Shaikh.


“If you look at the rules, the word rehabilitation isn't even used once,” he said.


“When we asked the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment about the lack of any specifics in the rules as to rehabilitation, they said, ‘We are preparing separate schemes for that.' But schemes are not law, which we can hold accountable in court.”


On its part, the central government insists on its committment to eliminating manual scavenging.


“There can't be a greater blot on India than the existence of manual scavenging,” Mr. Ramesh, the rural development minister, said in an interview to the New York Times.


“Manual scavenging shows us how caste is still very much an Indian reality, and of how some of the system's worst vestiges are still with us.”



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