Human Rights

Manual scavenging claims more lives in New Delhi

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has taken note of news reports from various media channels on the deaths of several manual scavengers across the country and especially in New Delhi. Manual scavenging has been outlawed in India but still persists, with the State being the biggest employer and enabler of the practice. Prosecutions for those who compel Dalits to perform this work are almost unheard of, and the practice continues unabated.

Case Narrative: The practice of manual scavenging continues across India, despite being outlawed in 1993 and being strongly condemned by the Supreme Court on several occasions. Over the past 45 days, at least nine men have died while engaging in manual scavenging, as the build-up of noxious gases has increased during the monsoons. None of the deceased workers were provided with safety gear, in clear violation of the law. These deaths were reported in the areas of Ghitorni, Lajpat Nagar, Daryaganj, and Anand Vihar. The deceased men in some of the instances were not identified.

In all cases, the scavengers were contracted by the Delhi Jal Board for the work.

According to the Delhi Government, the scavengers were contracted by a junior engineer with the Delhi Jal Board who has since been suspended. In light of the deaths, the Lieutenant Governor had directed the Chief Executive Officer of the Board to study and propose a plan of action for migration to 100 per cent mechanisation for sewers and drain cleaning within 15 days, in coordination with the Chairman of North Delhi Municipal Corporation and Commissioner of South Delhi Municipal Corporation. The Lieutenant Governor further directed the CEO to prepare a regime for cases requiring emergency manual intervention in accordance with the law in a week’s time.

Background: The International Labour Organization (ILO) describes three distinct forms of manual scavenging: the first involving removal of human excrement from public streets and dry latrines, which is predominantly performed by women, while the second and third involve cleaning septic tanks, and gutters and sewers respectively, for which men are usually recruited. There is some confusion as to the exact number of manual scavengers in India, primarily because most states refuse to accept that the practice still exists; however, the number is estimated at between 7-12 lakhs.

Manual scavengers tend to belong to the Dalit community, although the work is occasionally performed by poorer members of society. Most scavengers report being forced to engage in the work, often under the threat of physical violence and social exclusion, including refusal to provide alternative employment, deprivation of access to communal amenities, and housing problems. Most scavengers are not given any protective gear, despite being exposed to noxious gases and human excreta on a regular basis. They report a significantly higher rate of infectious diseases as compared to the rest of the population, and female scavengers in particular report higher instances of maternal mortality and urinary tract infections. Despite the known health hazards and enforced caste discrimination associated with the practice, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was only passed in 1993. This legislation did little to change the situation, and was criticised for allowing the government to exempt areas or communities of persons from its application. In particular, this allowed the Indian Railways, the single largest employer of manual scavengers, to be exempted from the application of the law.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, an organization dedicated to eradicating manual scavenging, challenging the poor implementation of the 1993 Act. In the interim, a new act, namely the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013, was passed. It provided for a multi-tier monitoring system and a mechanism to rehabilitate scavengers which included a provision for lump sum payment to identified scavengers. However, the new legislation has also suffered from ineffective implementation, primarily due to the unwillingness of states to register persons as manual scavengers. This occurs in part because States do not want to pay the compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs mandated by the Supreme Court in Safai Karamchari Andolan v.Union of India [(2014) 11 SCC 224 (2)].

The plight of manual scavengers in India has attracted international attention, particularly from Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, both of whom have observed that manual scavenging is symptomatic of entrenched caste discrimination, which is still rampant in Indian society today. It is also evident that the unwillingness of law enforcement personnel to arrest and prosecute persons who compel Dalits to perform manual scavenging is one of the main reasons behind the persistence of this practice.
Additional Information:

Article 17 of the Indian Constitution states that ‘untouchability is abolished’ and that the causation of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be a punishable offence. Article 14 prevents discrimination on the basis of caste, sex, race etc., while Article 15(4) permits the passage of legislation which contains special protections for members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Article 21 provides that no person may be denied the right to life and personal liberty except under procedure established by law, while Article 23 contains an explicit prohibition on forced labour. In People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India [1982 AIR 1473], it was held that force in the context of Article 23 meant “any factor which deprives a person of a choice of alternatives and compels him to adopt one particular course of action”, and forced labour is any “labour or service that is compelled as a result of such force”.

Human Rights Watch had designated manual scavenging as a form of slavery in its 2014 report, an assessment with which most other human rights groups agree. In international law, slavery is considered an erga omnes norm, and hence States have a duty towards their citizens as well as towards each other to prevent the occurrence of slavery. Additionally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 4 and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) under Article 8, contain an explicit prohibition of slavery and the slave-trade, with the latter term being expanded to include forced or compulsory labour. On a broader note, the Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) prohibits discrimination on the basis of descent, although the Indian state has continuously denied that caste discrimination comes within the ambit of the Committee for Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which receives reports from member states on racial discrimination in their regions.

Suggested Action: It is clear that the rights of manual scavengers and members of Dalit community are being violated by the government with impunity. Please write letters to the following authorities, requesting them to take cognizance of the issue, prosecute those who are responsible for employing the scavengers without protective gear and causing their deaths, and to address the broader problem of manual scavenging and rehabilitation in India. The AHRC is writing a separate letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues. (The Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong)

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