Since the early ages, the lower sections of society have been deprived of their rights and privileges. These people belonging to the weaker class of the society have always been vulnerable to certain types of activities that are against the basic rights that a human beholds. One such act that has been prevalent against the Scheduled caste and the Scheduled tribes is ‘Manual Scavenging’. Manual scavenging is an act, which is cruel towards the untouchables and the Dalits of the society. The practice of removing human waste and excrement from the streets, gutters, latrines, and sewages is known as Manual Scavenging. It is an act of absolute inhumanity that has been continuing in India.

The step towards the prohibition of this action was taken in the year 1993, with the introduction of the Employment of Manual scavenger & Construction of Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The implementation of this Act, however, was a complete failure, where thousands of Dalits still carried out the act of manual scavenging. While some of them performed the act out of sheer unemployment, a majority of them were forced by the officials of the ministry itself. Numerous deficiencies in the Act led to the continuation of manual scavenging across the entire country. The Act included provisions which only focused on prohibition rather than rehabilitation.

The provisions were such that they merely restricted the cleaning of dry latrines and sewers but did not provide protection or compensation to the employees that already performed scavenging. The punishment was liberal too, which included imprisonment for one year and a fine up to Rs.2000. Such inadequacies led to the continuation of employment that in turn led to the deaths of many individuals. It was thus evident from the increasing number of deaths of the manual scavengers that the 1993 act utterly failed to bring any positive change for the betterment of the scavenging employees. Thousands of them continued to make their living by cleaning the litter and shitholes of the public streets. 

It was only after the court expressed its stern belief of improving the lives of the SC & ST and to eradicate the practice of manual scavenging, in the case of Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India, that the need for the introduction of a whole new enactment was felt. In the same case, the court criticized the authorities of the state for remarkably failing to properly implement the Acit of 1993. 

A new Act named Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavenger & their Rehabilitation Act 2013 came into force with a purpose to not only put an end to the practice of Manual Scavenging, but also to provide adequate relief to the manual scavengers. The act was introduced with an aim to rehabilitate the lives of the scavengers and to permanently put a ban on such an insensitive form of employment. The act was brought with the following principal features:

  1. It puts a restriction on the practice of Manual Scavenging and seeks to dismiss and release all those who come into a contract of such an employment.
  2. The purview and definition of the term ‘manual scavenger’ was broadened in the act wherein all forms of removal of human waste such as drains, latrines, shitholes, etc were added and included.
  3. The act especially also brought under it, the prohibition of scavenging of Indian Railways as a lot of deaths were reported from the same.
  4. The primary focus of the act was the rehabilitation of the manual scavengers. The act thus provided alternate forms of employment to the workers so that they can give up the occupation of scavenging. This employment was provided on a sustainable basis, along with a stipend of Rs.3000 to the workers. Additionally, ready-built houses, and scholarships to the children of the workers were added by the government under the act.
  5. The act also mandated the organisation of training programmes in villages wherein awareness in relation to ban on the practice of manual scavenging was ought to be conducted among the people.
  6. The act sought to provide loans as well as financial relief to all the workers and also to the families of the employees who died of working in the brutal conditions of scavenging.
  7.  Further, the act of 2013 makes the act of manual scavenging a bailable as well as a cognizable offence.
  8. The conversion of manual latrines into sanitary latrines has been mandated by the act and the provision to provide protective tools to the manual scavengers has been made compulsory by the act.

Even after the enactment of the 2013 Act, the cases of deaths from manual scavenging has been on a rise. The workers are often offered huge sums of money which leaves them with no option  but to clean the drains. Today, in Mumbai, where everyday 2000 million litres of sewage is discharged, only 30,000 sanitation workers are allotted for cleaning the sewages.

The manpower employed to clean the drains which are almost the size of 800 swimming pools is very less. This would mean that for every 66,000 litres of sewage, one scavenger is employed. These brutal conditions of the workers requires an immediate action to be taken by the government. The practice of Manual Scavenging is not only insensitive but also infringes a person’s right to live with dignity.

The constitution of India provides for the protection of the weaker sections of the society and there is a sheer need for the rights of these manual scavengers to be protected. These workers must be protected from the social injustice that is being caused to them since generations. This system of unfair means of cleaning the latrines even though there exists sanitary mechanisms, requires to be eradicated. Thus, the failure of previous provisions and failure to eliminate the evil practice of Manual Scavenging necessitates a new law with better provision, and which also requires to be properly implemented and executed.

– Niharika Khanna


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