The Supreme Court on Friday asked the chief secretaries of all states and Union Territories (UTs) to place on record status report on number of manual scavengers employed directly or indirectly since 1993 when the law prohibiting the practice was enacted.
Hearing a plea on the issue, a bench of justices A K Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer observed that the matter was serious and asked all the states and the UTs to file their reply within four weeks.
The plea, filed by a NGO Criminal Justice Society of India headed by senior advocate K T S Tulsi, sought the number of manual scavengers who have died since 1993.
The plea filed through Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi also sought a direction to all the states, UTs and the Indian Railways to investigate the death of manual scavengers and initiate criminal proceedings under IPC Section 304 (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) against the authorities, agencies, contractors or any other official who have directly or indirectly employed manual scavengers.
The death of persons under these circumstances cannot be attributed to mere negligence as these persons are engaged either directly or indirectly to carry out acts which are prohibited under the law and are exposing them to deplorable and hazardous conditions which have proved to be fatal in numerous instances, it said.
“Hence, it is the plea of the Petitioner that the said contractors, officials, agencies or any other persons shall face criminal proceedings under section 304 of the Penal Code including the cases of agency wherein vicarious liability applies,” the plea said.
Manual scavenging was declared illegal in 1993 after the enaction of The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act.
Appearing for the Society, advocate Ashima Mandla said that the Act penalizes construction of insanitary latrine and direct or indirect employment of persons as manual scavengers and provides for up to two years imprisonment to authorities employing a person directly or indirectly for hazardous cleaning of a septic tank or sewer.
The plea said that Rule 4 of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Rehabilitation Rules, 2013 mandates that anyone engaged in cleaning of sewers or septic tanks shall be provided protective gear and safety devices by his employer.
“The subsisting infrastructure does not purport towards the safety and security of manual scavengers, resulting in accidents, diseases, injuries and fatalities suffered by them.
“Hence, inaction on behalf of the respondents despite knowledge of the above mentioned amounts to willful negligence and disregard to the fundamental rights and needs of certain weaker section of the society in its entirety,” the plea said.