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Madras HC Says Heads of Municipalities Must Ensure No Manual Scavenging Work Is Done

The high court issued orders directing all heads of municipal bodies and corporations to sign undertakings declaring that no manual scavenging work will occur in their jurisdiction and that they will be held personally liable if it does.

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New Delhi: The Madras high court on Wednesday directed all heads of corporations and municipalities in Tamil Nadu to file written undertakings declaring that no manual scavenging work will be carried out within their jurisdictions, Live Law reported.

The two-judge bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P.D. Audikesavalu further held that, in the future, the court may pass an order requiring incumbent commissioners or heads of municipalities to furnish such an undertaking when they assume office. 

The act of manual scavenging is banned under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and punishments for the same are laid out in a 2013 amendment to this Act, known as the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

The Madras high court’s orders also included that municipality heads would be held personally liable if any individual is found to be engaged in manual scavenging work within their respective municipalities.

“There cannot be any manual scavenging at all and it will continue to be the responsibility of all municipal bodies and Corporations across the State to ensure that there is no manual scavenging activity undertaken. The Commissioners of the Corporations and the heads of the Municipalities will be personally held liable in case any manual scavenging activity is detected or any mishap occurs in course thereof,” the bench said, according to news agency PTI.

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The court’s remarks came while issuing interim orders on a batch of petitions seeking to put an end to manual scavenging and to ensure that those who are engaged in it are rehabilitated in a proper manner. Among these petitions was one filed by the NGO Safai Karamchari Andolan.

“There cannot be any manual scavenging at all and it will continue to be the responsibility of all municipal bodies and Corporations across the State to ensure that there is no manual scavenging activity undertaken,” the court further noted.

The court also remarked that it was “heartening” to note that no deaths of “safai karamcharis” have been noted recently. However, reports have pointed out in the past that alternative terminologies have been used to avoid the deaths of sanitation workers from being classified as “manual scavenging deaths”.

When the government told the Rajya Sabha in this year’s monsoon session that there were no deaths due to manual scavenging were reported, activist Bezwada Wilson rejected the claim. He said the statement assumes that manual scavenging only comprises cleaning dry latrines. “So, he [social justice minister Ramdas Athawale] must mention in his statement very clearly that in dry latrines people may not die but here in septic tanks people die. The government is denying everything and in the same manner, he is denying deaths due to manual scavenging,” he said.

The court also advised the state to obtain the requisite machinery or to improve the functioning of sewer lines so that manual scavenging is no longer necessary anywhere in the state. The court also added that, if any independent person is found to be engaged in manual scavenging, the heads of corporations and municipalities will still be held responsible.

The state was ordered to issue critical guidelines relating to the matter before the next date of hearing, which is slated for November 10.

(With PTI inputs)