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June 13, 2019


All of us come across manual scavengers on a daily basis. The situation prevails across the country and most of them hail from Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and backward classes are doing it for years as their inherited profession. Although, they are providing a crucial service to our society but they have been grossly neglected. Their right to live with dignity as guaranteed under Article 21 constitution is compromised by the conditions under which they have to work and live. As per Article 46, it is the duty of the state to protect the weaker section of the society but so far, a little has been done to improve the life ofmanual scavengers and aid their rehabilitation.  If the past efforts have failed to get the maximum results then there is a need to have new strategies to accelerate the process of change. The percent of women engaged in Manual Scavenging is more than men; around 95% engaged in Manual Scavenging are said to be women. They face social, economic & political discrimination. There is no proper census on number of manual scavengers in India. Manual scavengers are usually from caste groups customarily relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy and confined to livelihood tasks viewed as deplorable or deemed too menial by higher caste groups. Manual Scavengers are threatened if they don’t carry out the work in several ways.
Central Government enacted a law on Employment of Manual Scavengers and Constructions of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993 but the statutes were not properly implemented. Looking at this dehumanizing practice of manual scavenging and failure of existing laws, Central Government had enacted a new law called The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 hereinafter the Act of 2013) on September 18, 2013. But the Act itself is not free from glaring loopholes. The researcher has identified the following lacuna in the statute-
Section 5 of the Act of 2013 prohibits manual scavenging but the primary cause of concern is that the manual scavengers are engaged by government officials in railways and municipalities but they are made invisible in official documents since this practice is officially ‘outlawed’. Also, major loophole of the legislation is that Section 2(1)(d) of the Act states that ‘hazardous cleaning’ by an employee, in relation to a sewer or septic tank, means its manual cleaning by such employee without the employer fulfilling his obligations to provide protective gear and other cleaning devices and ensuring observance of safety precautions.[1] This itself defeats the purpose of the Act as it seeks to legalize manual scavenging under the garb of protective gears. Also, as the exact definition of protective gears is not given in Act and due to the prevailing ambiguity, the cleaners are not provided with proper protective gears which result into their exposure to hazardous health diseases.
Section 4(1) of the Act states “Every local authority shall carry out a survey of insanitary latrines existing within its jurisdiction, and publish a list of insanitary latrines, in such manner as may be prescribed, within a period of two months from the date of commencement of this Act;” Here, the Act talks identification of only insanitary latrines. But, the Act does not mention of identification of spots where open defecation is done and consequently someone has to clean manually human excreta from the open spaces in urban areas. Local authorities have no willingness, time as well as expertise to conduct survey to identify insanitary latrines. There is also possibility that local authority will not identify actual numbers of insanitary latrines when insanitary latrines are constructed and maintained by the local authority. The survey may be on paper by local authority. Instead, the task to conduct survey may be given to some professional designated agency. Also, period of two months is insufficient for carry out survey of insanitary latrines.
One of the major reasons behind failure of implementations of welfare legislations for eradicating manual scavenging is backward technology used to clean the septic tanks that are not spacious for the cleaning machines to operate and clean the tanks. Human beings are then forced to indulge in this dehumanizing activity of sewage cleaning which then results into violation of their rights under Article 14, 17 and 21. Due to the inferior quality cleaning machines they expose themselves to several diseases such as body ache, headache, fatigue, cut injuries, metallic taste in mouth, burning of eyes, etc. According to a Survey there have been 1,340 deaths due to this dehumanizing activity across India in 2018.
According to section 4(1) of the 2013 Act protective gears should be provided to the sewage workers but since there is no exact definition given in the act sometime people who hire them on contract provide mere gloves which are not sufficient to tackle the risks they go through. A survey was conducted by Tata Institute of Social Sciences in which when it was asked by the sewage workers that whether there was any difference in their working conditions as compared to past working conditions, their reply was that they are still not provided with the protective gear in the tools they use—spliced bamboo, rods, spades, and buckets. It also came out in the survey that the BEST workers have a lot of facilities. But for sewage workers of the Mumbai’s municipality are not provided with much of the facility, no soap, no uniform, and no safety gears. The rooms provided to the workers are usually filthy, with no proper toilets and bathrooms, dysfunctional fans, and no desks. Some of the workers in the municipality are often employed on the contract basis. Their contractors often ignore the standards which they are ought to follow in providing healthy and hygienic work environment, as stated in the Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970 is is the duty of the contractor to provide First Aid Facilities [2]and other facilities necessary for them[3]. Very few workers even have their own lockers. They earn less but are forced to work more.
This dehumanizing practice although outlawed in India but it still prevails and people indulged in it are forced to risk their lives. Despite of the presence of various conventions and recommendations of International Labour Organization on improving the condition of the workers, Government seems to be indifferent towards them. Because of this indifferent attitude of the government there occurs deaths, that in my point of view is not death, it is murder which the government does by its careless attitude. A committee to suggest suitable measures comprising of representatives from the community of sewage workers be formed, as they know the ground reality why the welfare schemes have been failed to implement.[4].
International Labour Organization has made recommendations on the technical advancement, health and hygiene[5], good working conditions and other concerning issues.These recommendations should be followed and instead of manual cleaning of wastes technologies should be introduced for cleaning the sewage tanks and drains as there will be no deaths if proper steps are taken because in many surveys conducted by various education institutions and organizations it was concluded that sewage workers have to enter the tanks because of the inferior quality machines provided to them. Also the act prohibiting the practice does not provide for the exact definition of protective gears. So an exact definition should be provided which prescribes protective gear to be so advanced as to protect a person from health hazards.
Living standards so far has received little or no attention from the concerned authorities. The living conditions of the sewage workers can be improved by providing them benefits under the Minimum Wages act, 1948 as it has been seen that the kind of activity in they engage themselves is very hazardous and wages which they are paid is low than the wages guaranteed in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. In this regard International Labour Organization convention on medical care should be adhered to also they should be provided medical benefits as guaranteed by Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948. [6]



[1]The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013

[2]Section 19 of Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970

[3]Section 18 ofContract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970

[4]Section 3 of Industrial Disputes Act, 1947

[5] R097- Protection of Workers’ Health Recommendation, 1953 (No. 97)

[6]Section 22




Animesh Upadhyay is currently a third year student at Dr Ram Manohar  Lohia National Law University, Lucknow. His areas of interest include Constitutional Law and Criminal Law.



In Content Picture Credit:  EPW

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