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Years after manual scavenging was banned, it is a shame that SC has to intervene, say activists

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued fresh directions to ensure eradication of manual scavenging. All the way down in Tamil Nadu, manual scavengers continued to work oblivious to the calls for justice and equality in the high chambers of justice. 

Thimman Murugan, a 66-year-old manual scavenger in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, told The Leaflet over the phone that he had not heard about the Supreme Court Order directing the Union and state governments to eradicate manual scavenging by February 1, 2024. He was also unaware of the increase in death and injury compensation.

On Friday, a Supreme Court division Bench comprising Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Aravind Kumar heard a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Dr Balram Singh in person, and directed the Union and state governments to eradicate manual scavenging. The Bench also increased sewer death compensation to ₹30 lakh and injury compensation to ₹20 lakh.

Thimman is a manual scavenger working for a government local body in Tirupur on daily wages of around ₹150.

I am hearing about the Order for the first time now,” Thimman said.

When The Leaflet asked him what he would do if the government abides by the Order and stops manual scavenging on February 1, 2024, he said, “The government should protect us. They should show us some way of survival.”

Thimman spoke to The Leaflet through the phone of K. Palaniswamy, the programme coordinator of the Social Awareness Society For Youths (SASY), a grassroots organisation working for the upliftment of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu.

When asked why he engages in this demeaning work, his answer is simple and direct. “I am 66 years old. There are no other jobs available for people like me. So, for survival, I do this, even though I despise it.”

Caste-wise, others say, this is our job,” he added and returned to work.

Thimman belongs to the Schedule Caste Arunthathiyar community who have been condemned to the abhorrent practice of manual scavenging for generations. Despite their significant population of nearly 1.1 million in Tamil Nadu, they are still seen as Untouchables in their villages, and have to fight for social and economic justice.

Continuing the conversation, Palaniswamy said that despite the enactment of Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which banned manual scavenging and related jobs, “People such as Thimman continue to clean dry latrines, sewage lines and rail tracks in front of our eyes.”

The issue here is that when we bring this to the notice of the government, an inquiry will be announced. During the inquiry, the manual scavenger will say that no one forced them and that they are doing it voluntarily, which will end the case,” Palaniswamy said.

Palaniswamy added that caste hierarchy, Untouchability, illiteracy and wealth disparity play a key role in eliciting pro-government answers.

Palaniswamy claimed that even in cases of death or injury of manual scavengers, survivors are reluctant to come forward despite the available support.

While this report was being filed, Thimman was working as a manual scavenger. This despite the fact that as far back as August 8 this year, Ramdas Athwale, the Indian Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, stated in the Parliament that all 639 districts in India had been freed of manual scavenging.

Athwale was responding to a question from Parliamentarian Sarmistha Sethi in Lok Sabha. When she raised a follow-up question about whether the government was aware that manual scavenging is still taking place in 34 percent districts of India, pat came the minister’s categorical reply, “There is no manual scavenging in the country.”

When manual cleaning and sweeping can be still seen on railway tracks here, how can the government claim it is not happening?” Palaniswamy added.

Confirming what Palaniswamy said, Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister of Railways, Communications and Electronics and Information Technology, said in the Parliament on August 9 that no manual scavenging is being done by Indian Railways.

He added that the station and platform cleaning activities at major railway stations are carried out through mechanised means by using high pressure jets, mechanised floor scrubbers, walk-behind automatic scrubber dryers, battery-operated ride-on scrubbers, vacuum cleaners, flippers, wet and dry vacuum cleaners, etc., along with the requisite manpower.

In July 2022, quoting two surveys conducted in 2013 and 2018, Athwale had stated that there are 58,098 manual scavengers in India and 188 people had died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks between 2019 and 2022.

Interestingly, V.M. Chandran from Aathi Thamizhar Peravai told the Leaflet that in the Salem district of Tamil Nadu, there are 2,000 people working as manual scavengers, sweepers and railway track cleaners.

Aathi Thamizhar Peravai is an Arunthathiyar movement founded in 1994 at Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, for the upliftment of the community.

The minister also added that as of June 2022 (from 1993) 966 sewer deaths have occurred and 742 have got ₹10 lakh each as per the 2014 Supreme Court judgment and 113 have got less than ₹10 lakh each.

Meanwhile, talking to The Leaflet, Dr V.A. Ramesh Nathan, executive director, SASY, welcomed the Supreme Court Order but said that it is a shame for the Union and state governments as the court has directed an increase in the compensation for death and injury.

In 2013, manual scavenging was banned. But if the Supreme Court is forced to tell state and Union governments to pay hiked compensation, then that is a shame for these governments, isn’t it?” Ramesh asked.

In some seven years of work, in 2016, Ramesh was able to bring in an amendment to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to the effect that made providing employment or employing anybody belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Tribe as a manual scavenger a punishable offence.

Ramesh is involved in a legal fight for the rights of manual scavengers. In the legal fight he stated a startling fact.

With these two Acts, we should be able to punish the preparators and get compensation for the victims. Unfortunately, we are still at a stage of filing FIRs. We are not able to move to the chargesheet stage because the survivors are not coming forward to fight out the injustice,” he added.

While revealing what is happening on the ground, Ramesh was nevertheless optimistic about change and said that both the Union and state governments have a bigger role to play in eradicating the inhumane practice.

The Leaflet