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HC takes Railways to task for employing manual scavengers

More than 17 years after a law by the Central government banned it,scavengers can still be seen carrying human excrement with their bare hands on railway tracks across Delhi.

Written by Utkarsh Anand | New Delhi |
April 7, 2011 1:52:07 am

More than 17 years after a law by the Central government banned it,scavengers can still be seen carrying human excrement with their bare hands on railway tracks across Delhi. If they are lucky,they get to use a wagon.

While they may be cleaning the tracks with their hands,the Ministry of Railways does not think they “strictly” fall in the “manual scavengers” category,as defined under the Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act-1993,which had made dry latrine owners liable for prosecution.

Nevertheless,a few photographs depicting them carrying out the demeaning act at different railway stations in the Capital prompted the Delhi High Court to rubbish the Railways denial on Wednesday,and express its anguish over a state entity continuing to make employees do commit acts that are prohibited under the law.

Adjudicating the PIL filed by Safai Karamchari Andolan,a federation of state-level organisations of manual scavengers across the country,a Division Bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra took strong exception to an earlier affidavit of the Railways,contending that until they install washable aprons at stations and totally sealed toilet systems,“manual scavenging cannot be totally eradicated”.

“It is interesting to note the contention of the Railway Board that manual scavenging cannot be stopped completely. Besides not being in sync with the law,it is also unacceptable,and hence,requires an explanation. Let Secretary of the Railway Board B K Gupta,who has filed this,personally present himself in court on April 27 to explain how such an affidavit could be filed,” Justice Misra ordered.

Advocate Shomona Khanna,appearing for the petitioner,had earlier objected to the affidavit by the Railways whereby they denied employing manual scavengers anymore and claimed that those cleaning the tracks at Delhi’s railway stations did not come under the prohibited category as per the 1993 Act. The Railways further stated that action has been taken to stop the practice,and they were in the process of installing modern toilet facilities.

“The affidavit does not display a true picture of the situation,and many people can be seen cleaning the tracks of human excreta with their bare hands. This is not only one of the most inhuman practices,but also in complete violation of the law and constitutional provisions of the country,” Khanna told the Bench.

She further told the Bench that the federation was asked by the Supreme Court in January to move the High Courts of different states to ensure strict implementation of the law and ensure rehabilitation of all persons employed as manual scavengers. The Delhi High Court was chosen as the exclusive court to adjudicate such grievances against the Railways,Khanna said.

After going through the apex court order,the Bench appreciated her concern and observed that the issue related directly to human rights.

The PIL has sought a complete ban on employing manual scavengers,besides a time-bound rehabilitation plan by the authorities. It has further pressed for court orders to the Delhi government,the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Railways to immediately implement the 1993 Act. The petition further sought a declaration that manual scavenging and servicing dry latrines violated fundamental rights as per Article 14 (equality before law),Article 17 (abolition of untouchability) and Article 23 (right against exploitation) of the Constitution.

The law treats employment of people as manual scavengers and construction of dry latrines as a criminal offence,and has made it mandatory for the government to rehabilitate manual scavengers after weaning them from the profession. The law also binds the governments to demolish dry latrines in the country.

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