Is Manual Scavenging Violative of Article 21?

Is Manual Scavenging Violative of Article 21?

By Abhiudhay Sharma

Ramu, a young boy, was once taken by his father to work. Excited that he’ll start earning from this day, Ramu was very happy. Once both father and son reached their place of work, Ramu was shocked to see the place and refused to move a step.

Do you know the reason for that? Because of the place where Ramu’s father worked in a septic tank, he had to clean with his bare hands. 

Although Ramu’s father understood his son’s plight, he still took him to clean the tank. While returning, Ramu asked his father why he does such disgusting work.

The father’s answer was heartbreaking, “because we’re Dalits, and this is what our ancestors used to do, and we continue to do.”

Listening to his father’s words, Ramu finally understood the significance of caste! And that’s not just one story. There have been infinite Ramus in our nation, and even after many laws were passed to improve the plight of people like Ramu, conditions remain the same. 

Manual Scavenging: A Plague with No Cure Except Awareness

75 years of independence and the people of India still haven’t been able to uproot the age-old practices of castism in the nation. Manual scavenging is one such practice that has been prevalent in India since ancient times, and people practicing it are commonly referred to as Manual Scavengers.

These manual scavengers are mostly people of a class known as untouchables, i.e., Dalits. Although the plight of Dalits now is not catastrophic as it used to be, they still carry out practices of manual scavenging that hamper their basic right to live. 

A Violative of Article 21

The word “manual scavenging” is mostly used in India to describe the manual cleaning, transporting, disposal, or other treatment of human waste in an unhygienic lavatory, an uncovered drain or sewer, a septic system, or a pit.

Manual scavengers typically use hand equipment, including buckets, brooms, and shovels, to transport the excreta to disposal sites that may be several kilometers away. 

Article 21 of our constitution states, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.” Article 21 doesn’t just give people the right to live but ensures that they live with dignity in a decent humanitarian background. 

But what if some citizens’ daily activities include cleaning human excreta from various places with bare hands? Does this practice equivalent to the provisions mentioned in Article 21? Do those humans enjoy a clean environment or protection against hazardous substances? 

What’s the Solution?

While laws have been passed to help with manual scavengers’ plight, complete solutions have not been derived. 

The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993

This was passed to outlaw manual scavenging and ensure that those who engage in it do not lose their right to live in dignity. The Act forbids the construction of unsanitary latrines and the employment of manual scavengers.

The Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavenging, 2007 (SRMS)

This law was created to aid in rehabilitating manual scavengers and their families in finding alternative jobs.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. 

This Act stipulated that the initial action should be to “demolish all the insanitary latrines.” According to this Act, local authorities, such as municipal corporations, railway authorities, etc., will be held accountable for the construction and upkeep of communal sanitary latrines and must guarantee that they are usable and hygienic. 

The second move was to outlaw hiring anyone for hazardous sewer and septic tank cleaning or manual scavenging work.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020 

This aims to automate sewer cleaning fully, add measures for “on-site” protection, and pay manual scavenger compensation in the event of sewer deaths, but until it is passed, ‘manual scavenging’ will continue to take place.

Way Forward

The life of a person matters, and this manual scavenging is a dishonorable act. We read news reports of many construction workers passing away in septic tanks and sewers. 

There is a compelling argument to address the issue of manual scavenging given that the Swachh Bharat Mission has been named a top priority area by the 15th Finance Commission and that monies are available for smart cities and urban development. 

In order to overcome the social stigma associated with manual scavenging, it is first vital to recognize and understand how and why the caste system continues to remain in place.

The next step is to actively engage in the problem and investigate all viable alternatives in order to analyze and stop this behavior accurately.

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