The right to a clean, safe, and healthy environment is a fundamental right protected by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, encompassed by the right to life. However, sanitation employees jeopardise their own health and safety in order to guarantee that citizens have access to this privilege. Recently, five sanitation workers died in Maharashtra, three in West Bengal, and two each in Haryana and Gujarat. In 2022, a total of 24 sanitation workers died, while this number is over 300 between the five-year period of 2017 to 2021. A specific issue which drastically affects sanitation workers’ health is manual scavenging, which refers to the work of “manually cleaning, disposing, or handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit.”
In February 2023, the Supreme Court of India ordered the Central Government to document its measures to stop manual scavenging, in compliance with the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013 (the Act). More recently, in Manav Garima v State of Gujarat (2013), the High Court heard a public interest litigation seeking proper implementation of the Act. The case sought the award of proper compensation to the families of workers who had lost their lives while engaged in manual scavenging. The High Court also found in this case that the Head of the Civic Body concerned will be held liable (e.g. a municipal commissioner, municipality chief officer, or gram panchayat sarpanch) if any individual is found engaged in manual scavenging, a necessary measure to compel appropriate attention from authorities.
The Act bans outright the practice of manual scavenging. It also contains measures that make hiring someone as a manual scavenger illegal and punishable, and it provides for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, along with monitoring and construction of sanitary latrines and the destruction of dry ones. Moreover, in the landmark 2014 judgment Safai Karamchari Andolan v Union of India, the apex Court laid down clear guidelines for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and for payment of compensation to the deceased worker’s family. In spite of these laws and guidelines, manual scavenging continues in India, due to three major lacunae in the Act.
Firstly, there has been an absolute failure to rehabilitate workers, chiefly because the Act does not specify an authority to oversee this. Many families of workers who died while engaged in manual scavenging are also not paid compensation as per the guidelines: in Gujarat it was established that only 137 of 152 families were paid. The problem also persists because of a lack of subsequent employment opportunities and persistent social stigma. Due to a lack of appropriate retraining and skill development, these workers are unable to transition to other employment and remain stuck in the vicious cycle of manual scavenging.
Secondly, the Act aims to prohibit employers from engaging manual scavengers, but only if workers are not given protective gear. Yet the Act does not provide any definition of “protective gear” and this loophole is used by employers to evade liability, even though they are only providing workers with gloves. It is also noteworthy that railways are some of the largest employers of manual scavengers and that these are government entities. As such, the finding in Gujarat – which holds civic bodies liable if any employee is engaged in manual scavenging – is critical, given that the government continues to support the largest organisational network of manual scavengers, despite passing legislation to end its practice.
Finally, the Act is also inadequate in practice due to a lack of technology and investment in appropriate infrastructure. Though the Act provides for transforming dry latrines into sanitary latrines, no steps have been taken to achieve this: meanwhile, due to the existence of dry latrines which cannot be cleaned by machines, the task must be done manually. Similarly, septic tanks are not designed such that they can be cleaned by machines, and thus require manual scavenging to do so.
Overall, proper implementation of the act is crucial and it requires greater initiative from the government. Manual scavenging not only violates the right to dignity but also the right to health, as well as the rights to life and liberty. Eliminating manual scavenging thus demands urgent attention from both state and non-state actors.
Want to learn more?
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- Read: The Colonial and Casteist Undertones of Policing in Madhya Pradesh, India