The Madras High Court on Wednesday expressed its inclination to issue guidelines aimed at putting a complete end to the practice of manual scavenging (Safai Karamchari Andolan v Union of Inda and ors).
Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee also said that the Court is inclined to fix the responsibility on the heads of corporations or municipal authorities if any deaths occur due to manual scavenging, regardless of whether the manual scavengers were knowingly hired or hired by a contractor.
The Court added that the State ought to either get machines tailor-made to handle work in the sewers or change the sewer system itself so that it is not just human labour that can clean such sewers. In this regard, Chief Justice Banerjee also remarked that the State appears reluctant to spend money to bring about these changes.
The Bench of Chief Justice Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy was dealing with a batch of pending petitions filed against the manual scavenging with NGO Safai Karamchari Andolan being one of the petitioners.
Government Pleader Jayaprakash Narayan, appearing for the State, assured the Court that funds are being allotted to acquire such machinery so that human exploitation can be eliminated. He also submitted that the responsibility for deaths due to manual scavenging can be fixed on the contractors, whose work would be cancelled and who may be blacklisted for engaging manual scavengers.
The petitioner NGO meanwhile sought more time to peruse the replies filed by the State government and the Chennai Corporation on the issue, in view of which the matter was adjourned by the Court by a fortnight.
Advocate Srinath Sridevan representing the NGO, appreciated the Court’s approach in tackling the issue, adding that there have been no deaths due to manual scavenging since the Court’s last order.
“For once they fear for their own skins… this the chilling effect we hoped for. There has been no deaths since your Lordships’ last order,” Sridevan submitted.
Before adjourning the matter, the Court also urged the State to give its input as well on how the practice of manual scavenging can be curbed.
“These are not adversarial matters, suggest what would stop this practice. You are better experienced. If you suggest certain things, we can incorporate in the guidelines,” Chief Justice Banerjee told the State.
Earlier, on March 16, the Court had opined that the concerned municipal or corporation authorities should be held personally liable for any deaths occurring due to manual scavenging.
“It is high-time that the heads of Corporations and Municipalities are held personally liable for any death to anyone engaged in manual scavenging within their territories. It must be made clear by the appropriate department of the State to all heads of Municipal Corporations and Municipalities in the State that any manual scavenging death within the jurisdiction of the relevant Municipality or Corporation will result in the Commissioner or Chairperson or the like controlling authority of the relevant body to face criminal charges and be subjected to immediate arrest,” the March 16 order said.
Safai Karamchari Andolan had informed the Court earlier that as of February 2021, there have already been six deaths this year due to manual scavenging. The petitioner further told the Court that deaths due to manual scavenging are often explained away as mere accidents such as from a slip and fall, owing to which FIRs are not registered.
The Court had expressed displeasure at this state of affairs, opining that both the State officials as well as contractors hired by them should be booked under criminal law if it is found that persons have died due to manual scavenging.
While the municipal corporations may have stopped directly hiring manual scavengers, it appears that contractors are engaged for the purpose and municipal authorities look the other way, the Court had observed.