Manual Scavenging: Supreme Court issues directions to completely eradicate the practice

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The Supreme Court bench while hearing Dr. Balram Singh vs. Union of India & Ors. case on October 20, issued directions to Union and state governments to ensure the complete eradication of the practice of manual scavenging. The two-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising  Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Aravind Kumar was hearing a PIL (Public Interest Litigation), filed by Dr. Balram Singh, seeking directions for the implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 and Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. While expressing disappointment and anger at the continuance of this practice of manual scavenging in India, the SC bench directed to increase the compensation in cases of sewer deaths and permanent disablement arising from sewer operations to Rs. 30 Lakhs and Rs. 20 Lakhs respectively. It also directed to increase the compensation for other forms of disablement that must be not less than Rs. 10 Lakhs. 

While pronouncing the judgment, Justice Bhat quoted the words of Dr. Ambedkar, “Ours is a battle not for wealth of power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for reclamation of human personality.” The order of the bench further reads, “If you have to be truly equal in all respects, the commitment that Constitution makers gave to all sections of society by entrenching emancipatory provisions such as Articles 15(2), 17, 23, and 24, each of us must live up to its promise. Union and States are duty-bound to ensure that the practice of manual scavenging is completely eradicated. Each of us owes to this large segment of the population, who have remained unseen, unheard, and muted, in bondage and systematically trapped in inhuman conditions. The conferment of entitlements and placement of obligations upon the Union and States through the express prohibitions in the Constitution and provisions of the 2013 Act mean that they are obliged to implement the provisions in the letter and spirit.”

It added, “Upon all of us citizens lie the duty of realizing true fraternity. It is not without reason that our Constitution has placed great emphasis on the value of dignity and fraternity. But for these two, all other liberties are a chimera. All of us today who proudly bask in the achievements of our republic have to awake and arise so that the darkness that has been the fate of generations of our people is dispelled and they enjoy these freedoms and justice- social, economic, and political- that we take for granted.” 

The directions issued by the bench are as follows:

  • “The Union should take appropriate measures and frame policies, and issue directions, to all statutory bodies, including corporations, railways, cantonments, as well as agencies under its control, to ensure that manual sewer cleaning is completely eradicated in a phased manner, and also issue such guidelines and directions as are essential, that any sewer cleaning work outsourced, or required to be discharged, by or through contractors or agencies, do not require individuals to enter sewers, for any purpose whatsoever; 
  • All States and Union Territories are likewise, directed to ensure that all departments, agencies, corporations, and other agencies (by whatever name called) ensure that guidelines and directions framed by the Union are embodied in their own guidelines and directions; the states are specifically directed to ensure that such directions are applicable to all municipalities, and local bodies functioning within their territories; 
  • The Union, State, and Union Territories are directed to ensure that full rehabilitation (including employment to the next of kin, education to the wards, and skill training) measures are taken in respect of sewage workers, and those who die; 
  • The court hereby directs the Union and the States to ensure that the compensation for sewer deaths is increased (given that the previous amount fixed, i.e., 10 lakhs) was made applicable from 1993. The current equivalent ₹ of that amount is Rs. 30 lakhs. This shall be the amount to be paid, by the concerned agency, i.e., the Union, the Union Territory, or the State as the case may be. In other words, compensation for sewer deaths shall be 30 lakhs. In ₹ the event, dependents of any victim have not been paid such amount, the above amount shall be payable to them. Furthermore, this shall be the amount to be hereafter paid, as compensation.
  • Likewise, in the case of sewer victims suffering disabilities, depending upon the severity of disabilities, compensation shall be disbursed. However, the minimum compensation shall not be less than ₹ 10 lakhs. If the disability is permanent and renders the victim economically helpless, the compensation shall not be less than ₹ 20 lakhs. 
  • The appropriate government (i.e., the Union, State, or Union Territories) shall devise a suitable mechanism to ensure accountability, especially wherever sewer deaths occur in the course of contractual or “outsourced” work. This accountability shall be in the form of cancellation of the contract, forthwith, and imposition of monetary liability, aimed at deterring the practice. 
  • The Union shall devise a model contract, to be used wherever contracts are to be awarded, by it or its agencies and corporations, in the concerned enactment, such as the Contract Labour (Prohibition and Regulation Act), 1970, or any other law, which mandates the standards – in conformity with the 2013 Act, and rules, are strictly followed, and in the event of any mishap, the agency would lose its contract, and possibly blacklisting. This model shall also be used by all States and Union Territories. 
  • The NCSK, NCSC, NCST, and the Secretary, Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, shall, within 3 months from today, draw modalities for the conduct of a National Survey. The survey shall be ideally conducted and completed in the next one year. 
  • To ensure that the survey does not suffer the same fate as the previous ones, appropriate models shall be prepared to educate and train all concerned committees. 
  • The Union, State, and Union Territories are hereby required to set up scholarships to ensure that the dependents of sewer victims, (who have died or might have suffered disabilities) are given meaningful education.
  • The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) shall also be part of the consultations, toward framing the aforesaid policies. It shall also be involved, in co-ordination with state and district legal services committees, for the planning and implementation of the survey. Furthermore, the NALSA shall frame appropriate models (in the light of its experience in relation to other models for disbursement of compensation to victims of crime) for easy disbursement of compensation. 
  • The Union, State, and Union Territories are hereby directed to ensure coordination with all the commissions (NCSK, NCSC, NCST) for setting up state-level, district-level committees and commissions, in a time-bound manner. Furthermore, constant monitoring of the existence of vacancies and their filling up shall take place. 
  • NCSK, NCSC, NCST, and the Union government are required to coordinate and prepare training and education modules, for information and use by district and state-level agencies, under the 2013 Act. 
  • A portal and a dashboard, containing all relevant information, including the information relating to sewer deaths, and victims, the status of compensation disbursement, as well as rehabilitation measures taken, and existing and available rehabilitation policies shall be developed and launched at an early date.”

The bench further stated that the progress made in the implementation of the directions aforementioned will be examined by the Supreme Court on February 01, 2024.