The Supreme Court of India on Friday issued a comprehensive set of fourteen directives aimed at eradicating the practice of manual scavenging across the nation. A pivotal aspect of these directives revolves around significantly raising compensation for injuries or fatalities endured by manual scavengers. Moreover, these directives are focused on achieving the “complete eradication” of this practice, ensuring the effective implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, and establishing robust rehabilitation measures for victims and their families. This includes establishing scholarships to provide meaningful education for the dependents of sewer victims.
Under the court’s orders, compensation for sewer-related fatalities has been raised from the long-standing INR 10 lakhs since 1993 to the current equivalent of INR 30 lakhs. Furthermore, those suffering from sewer-related disabilities are entitled to a minimum compensation of INR 10 lakhs, which increases to INR 20 lakhs for permanent disabilities, rendering the victim economically helpless.
Manual scavengers are individuals engaged in the task of handling human waste in unsanitary conditions, where they typically work for private or public entities and local authorities. They confront grave health risks, including exposure to toxic gases and infectious diseases, significantly shortening their lives. It includes gases like hydrogen disulfide, methane and ammonia, causing vision issues, respiratory problems, seizures and the risk of asphyxiation in sewers. Within unsanitary manholes and septic tanks, they also battle bacterial infections like leptospirosis.
Their marginalized caste status restricts their access to healthcare services, further escalating the risk of death during their work. This situation is compounded by deeply entrenched feudal and caste-based traditions, which largely lead manual scavengers to hail from marginalized caste groups relegated to the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy. These individuals are assigned occupations deemed deplorable by higher-caste groups, perpetuating social stigma, branding them as “unclean” or “untouchable,” and sustaining pervasive discrimination.
In a significant legal milestone, the Supreme Court’s decision in Safai Karamchari Andolan and Others v. Union of India and Others directed the government to take swift action, setting forth directives to end the involvement of future generations in manual scavenging and to facilitate the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. This rehabilitation includes financial support, self-employment training, and educational opportunities. The court also mandated the government to provide ₹10 lakh in compensation to the families of individuals who lost their lives in sewage-related work since 1993.
India is bound by a multitude of international agreements and treaties, in addition to its Constitution, that firmly prohibit the practice of manual scavenging. These agreements include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention 111 and 161 of the International Labour Organisation respectively.