Supreme Court expresses concern over data indicating increase in number of manual scavengers

A division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Aravind Kumar remarked on the appallingly high number of manual scavengers in certain states and noted the need for the Union and state governments to act immediately. 

ON Thursday, the Supreme Court heard advocate K. Parmeshwar, the amicus curiae, on the need to effectively collect data on manual scavengers in the country. 

A division Bench comprising Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Aravind Kumar was hearing a public interest litigation that urged the implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013

As per Section 2(1)(g) of the Act, manual scavenging is defined as manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or handling in any manner, human excreta in an ‘insanitary’ latrine.  

In the case of Safai Karamchari Andolan and Others versus Union of India and Others. (2014), the Supreme Court had issued guidelines for preventing future generations from the practice of manual scavenging, and rehabilitation of manual scavengers, including through cash assistance, training for self-employment and education.  

On Thursday, the amicus curiae stated that the Union government claims that 58,098 manual scavengers had been identified and rehabilitated, as per data collected through two surveys conducted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2013 and 2018, . 

The amicus curiae pointed out that according to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK)’s annual report of 2019–20, a survey conducted in 18 states found that 42,303 people continue to work as manual scavengers as on August 20, 2019.

The NCSK is a non-statutory body that monitors the implementation of the 2013 Act, enquires into complaints, advises the Union and state governments on effective implementation of the Act and takes notice of non-implementation.

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Quoting the commission’s report, the amicus curiae pointed out that it has flagged the slow and erratic identification of manual scavengers with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment several times and had urged for a survey for such identification by a third party.

Highlighting that data in respect of manual scavenging is the first requisite for abolishing the practice of manual scavenging, the commission noted that the national level figure of people that continue to work as manual scavengers is not available.

The commission’s report noted in its findings that a survey for the identification of manual scavengers at the national level in each and every district is required.

From the report, the amicus curiae highlighted a lack of segregated data for women manual scavengers, while most of the manual scavenging work is done by women. 

On the Bench’s enquiry for steps to identify manual scavengers, the amicus curiae opined that as a first step, a thorough survey should be conducted in the states where large numbers of manual scavengers are reported. 

Justice Kumar raised the concern about the probability of non-reporting of such identification and observed that if the authority at the taluka level is directed to report on the number of manual scavengers, the results may be doubtful since manual scavengers are not likely to report to the authorities for fear of losing their income, as well as the beneficiaries who employ them.

To address Justice Kumar’s concern, the amicus curiae highlighted the suggestion of the commission to conduct the survey in a manner prescribed by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation, a government corporation set up for the socio-economic upliftment of the manual scavengers and their dependants through various loan and non-loan based schemes.

The amicus curiae pointed out Rules 10 (survey of insanitary latrines) and 11 (survey of manual scavengers) of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules, 2013, which provide a “well-thought-of” procedure to conduct a survey.

He noted that the Rules are a rare legislative piece where all details of conducting a survey are prescribed. 

It was also highlighted to the Bench that apart from Chhattisgarh and Odisha, no other state has constituted a state-level survey. 

Further, the Bench noted the “appalling” figures of identified manual scavengers from the commission’s report, where, for instance, the identified numbers increased from 78 in 2013 to 1,982 in 2018 in Andhra Pradesh, and from zero in 2013 to 7,378 in 2018 in Maharashtra. 

Also read: Lack of water supply makes sanitation workers manually scavenge Indian toilets

Emphasising the statutory provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, the amicus curiae pointed out that the five committees constituted under the Act, such as the Central Monitoring Commission and the NCSK, can exercise only the monitoring function and they cannot pass effective directions to implement the Act. 

By highlighting the need to empower institutions formed under the Act, as well as to ensure that they are appropriately staffed, the amicus curiae submitted, “In an issue that involves Article 17 of the Constitution, some teeth will have to be given to the authorities under the Act.” 

On the issue of manual scavengers employed to clean dry latrines, the amicus curiae noted that it is evident from the records of the NCSK and from the parliamentary questions that a number of insanitary latrines have been demolished across the country. 

However, he emphasised that even cleaning the surrounding area where the insanitary latrines dump human excreta is prohibited under the Act. “Mere demolition of such latrines ipso facto does not solve the problem,” he argued. 

Justice Bhat observed the need for the Union and state governments to come on board to implement the provisions of the Act and to set up the mandated committees. 

Quoting the report of the commission that most of the officers of the state and Union territory governments are not fully aware of the provisions of the Act, thereby contributing to the survival of manual scavenging, Justice Kumar noted the need to sensitise government officials. 

The Bench directed Justice Kumar to formulate and submit a note on the next date of hearing, on how such sensitisation could be conducted. 

Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati apprised the Bench of a meeting of the Central Monitoring Committee held on July 5, 2023 and promised that the updated status report with the approved minutes of the meeting will be submitted before the next date of hearing. 

The matter is posted for the next hearing on July 27, 2023.


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