Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India (2014): Eradicating the Inhuman Practice of Manual Scavenging

Introduction

This landmark Supreme Court judgment addressed the plight of manual scavengers in India. It aimed to eradicate this degrading practice, ensure effective rehabilitation of affected workers, and prevent its recurrence.

Facts of the Case

  • Prevalence of Manual Scavenging: 

The inhuman practice of manually removing human excreta from dry latrines using bare hands or basic tools persists in many parts of India.

  • Magnitude of the Issue: 

Surveys estimated over 12 lakh manual scavengers, while official figures reported 6,76,009 identified scavengers in 2002-2003.

  • Caste Factor: 

Over 95% of manual scavengers belong to the Dalit (Scheduled Caste) community, forced into this work under the guise of “traditional occupation.”

  • Proliferation of Dry Latrines: 

Despite a significant increase in dry latrines (from 72.05 lakh in 1989 to 96 lakh), these continue to be manually cleaned by Dalit scavengers.

Government Initiatives and Shortcomings

  • Legislative Efforts: 

The government enacted schemes like the ‘Low Cost Sanitation for Liberation of Scavengers’ (1989-90) and the ‘National Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers’ (1992). It also passed the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.

  • Ineffective Implementation: 

The 1993 Act remained largely inoperative for several years, and the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis highlighted its poor implementation.

  • Unsuccessful Schemes: 

A CAG report (2003) concluded that the ‘National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation’ failed to achieve its objectives due to unspent funds and a lack of proper rehabilitation measures.

Issues Raised in the Writ Petition

  • Violation of Fundamental Rights: 

The petition argued that manual scavenging and dry latrines violated the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14 (Equality), 17 (Abolition of Untouchability), 21 (Right to Life and Liberty), and 23 (Right to Protect from Exploitation) of the Constitution.

  • Ineffective Law Enforcement: 

The petition challenged the Union Government, State Governments, and Union Territories for failing to effectively implement the 1993 Act.

  • Lack of Comprehensive Plans: 

The absence of concrete and time-bound plans for eradicating manual scavenging and rehabilitating affected workers was highlighted.

  • Social and Economic Exploitation: 

The petition emphasized the persistent social and economic exploitation of manual scavengers, primarily from the Dalit community.

Court’s Observations

  • Rooted in Caste System: 

The Court recognized that manual scavenging stemmed from the caste system and the abolished practice of untouchability.

  • Continued Practice: 

The Court noted the persistence of manual scavenging despite constitutional provisions and earlier laws.

  • Welcome Step:

The Court acknowledged the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, as a positive step towards ending this evil practice.

Court’s Directions

  • Rehabilitation Measures: 

The Court mandated providing one-time cash assistance, scholarships, housing, skill training, and alternative livelihood opportunities for rehabilitated manual scavengers identified under the 2013 Act.

  • Criminalizing Sewer Deaths: 

Sewer deaths due to manual scavenging were directed to be treated as crimes, with Rs. 10 lakh compensation awarded to the families of deceased workers. The Court also instructed the Railways to implement time-bound measures to eliminate manual scavenging on railway tracks.

  • Compensation for Historical Injustice: 

The Court directed the identification of families of all individuals who died in sewer cleaning work since 1993 and ordered a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh each.

  • Rehabilitation Principles: 

The Court emphasized that rehabilitation should be based on the principles of justice and social transformation.

  • Strict Enforcement: 

All States and Union Territories were directed to fully implement the 2013 Act and take strict action against violators, recognizing it as the sole legislation governing manual scavenging.

Conclusion

The Court empowered aggrieved persons to approach authorities and High Courts for grievances related to the Act’s implementation. This landmark judgement aimed to eradicate the dehumanizing practice of manual scavenging and ensure a life of dignity and opportunity for those affected.