Reading Supreme Court’s Directions on Manual Scavenging: Denial by Government Must Stop, Time to Act Now!


On 26th July, 2023, in an answer to a question in Parliament, the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale claimed that no person had died from manual scavenging in the country in 2023 and that there is no report of practice of manual scavenging in any districts. The Minister however added that 9 people had died in 2023 due to the “cleaning of sewer and septic tanks”.


Manual scavenging legally defined encapsulates within its definition every act of cleaning, carrying, disposing off, or handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of or on a railway track or in such other places or premises, as the Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes. The Government continues to deny the continuance of this practice.


Manual scavenging which has its roots the caste system, is performed almost entirely by persons belonging to the Dalit community. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, had proved itself to be insufficient due to variety of shortcomings in it. Recognising these shortcomings, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was enacted. The 2013 Act broadened the definition of manual scavenging to address its evolving forms. Additionally, the 2013 law included provisions for identifying and rehabilitating workers and established a monitoring and vigilance system at the Union, State, District, and Sub-divisional levels.



This law too has remained largely unimplemented. Official figures state that between 2018 and 2023, 339 workers lost their lives – 6 people have been officially identified to have died every month in these years. This is the official statistics. The number of unreported cases is not even known.


This issue of manual scavenging is foregrounded only when a worker dies, and the everydayness of this continued inhuman practice is ignored. The continued denial of the existence of this practice is one of the main reasons for non-implementation of the laws. How can the law be rigorously implemented when the Union Ministry refuses to acknowledge the existence of this practice?


The Supreme Court had previously given its attention to this issue in Safai Karamchari Andolan and Ors. v. Union of India and Ors (2014) 11 SCC 224, and had issued various directions on 27th March, 2014 - these included the requirement to identify and rehabilitate these workers as also providing for compensation to workers who die while performing this work.


Despite the laws and the orders of the Supreme Court, manual scavenging has not only continued but also evolved into various new forms. The AICCTU had filed a Writ Petition before the Karnataka High Court highlighting various new forms of manual scavenging that have emerged over the years that include the cleaning of sewers, septic tanks, soak pits, Sewerage Treatment Plants and open sewerage lines. The newly developed Swachha Bharat toilets actually promote manual scavenging. In fact, caste and neo-liberal policies have come together to institutionalize precarious working conditions of workers who perform these new forms of manual scavenging, and trapping them into such caste ordained work.


It is in this context that we must look at the recent judgement of the Supreme Court dated 20th October, 2023 in Dr. Balram Singh vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors., that has issued various directions on manual scavenging.


The Supreme Court notes that the 2013 Act must be seen along with 3 important Constitutional provisions - the prohibition of untouchability; the outlawing of forced labour and freedom against exploitation. The law is seen by the Supreme Court as an emancipatory Code that guarantees the right for the oppressed classes to break away from oppressive structures, and must be implemented as such. 


The Supreme Court in its order has come down heavily on the Government for its failure to ensure the proper implementation of the law, and has issued directions both to the Union and the State Government to eradicate the manual scavenging.


Identification of persons in manual scavenging

The Court notes that rehabilitation forms the emancipatory aspect of the law and this is possible only subsequent to the identification of workers through surveys. Clearly, the process of identification is crucial.


Before the Court, the Union Government claimed that a National Survey was conducted between 2018 and 2020 in 194 districts, which resulted in identification of 44,217 manual scavengers. It also claimed that out of 766 districts, 650 districts have reported themselves free of manual scavenging.


The Court notes that the survey was unsatisfactory and had left out a large number of workers. Noting the example of Karnataka, it found that while a survey conducted in 2013 found 732 manual scavengers the 2018 survey found that there were 1754 manual scavengers, a survey conducted in 2020 found 7493 manual scavengers. The Court notes that such exponential increase of the numbers reduces the credibility of the survey the Union government relies upon.


The Court thus has directed that modalities for the National Survey shall be drawn up, which shall be completed in one year. It has also directed that full rehabilitation (including employment to the next of kin, education to the wards, and skill training) is ensured.


Non-functioning of Monitoring Committee

The judgement reveals the abysmal condition of the monitoring committee. The Court notes that the Central Monitoring Committee, under the chairmanship of the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, that is to monitor the implementation of the law had not met in 3 years, and only met in July, 2023 pursuant to the directions of the Court. It also notes that the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis that is to monitor the implementation of the 2013 Act was short-staffed and was not even functioning in the year 2022-23. It also found that in many cases Monitoring Committees at the State, District and Sub-divisional levels have not been constituted and where they were constituted, they are not functional.


The Court has directed for co-ordination between the monitoring bodies and for the constitution and proper functioning of the committees.


Hazardous Cleaning as Forced Labour

The Court's crucial finding emphasizes that when workers are compelled to undertake hazardous tasks without the provision of protective gear and cleaning devices, such employment amounts to forced labour that is prohibited under Article 23 of the Constitution.


It directs that families of hazardous workers who had died in sewers and septic tanks are also entitled to compensation and rehabilitation akin to those given to manual scavengers, including long-term and short-term socio-economic measures. It also directs that steps be taken to rehabilitate persons who are employed as hazardous workers without protective gear.


Compensation and Rehabilitation on Death of Workers

The Court has increased the compensation payable in the case of death of workers from 10 lakhs as was previously determined to Rs. 30 lakhs now. In the case of workers suffering disabilities, depending upon the severity of disabilities, compensation shall be disbursed, with the minimum compensation being not less than 10 lakhs. It has also directed that scholarships be set up to ensure that the dependents of workers who have died, or suffered disabilities are given meaningful education.


The Court has also directed the Government to devise suitable mechanisms to ensure accountability, wherever sewer deaths occur in the course of contractual or "outsourced" work, which shall be in the form of cancellation of contract, forthwith, and imposition of monetary liability, aimed at deterring the practice.


It is shameful that even after 76 years of independence, the abhorrent practice continues to prevail, and the root cause for this lies in the caste system. Eradication of manual scavenging has to start from delinking the profession of sanitation from caste. Manual scavenging derives its ideological basis from Manu Smriti and the inhuman discrimination based on caste. In November 2007, the Times of India carried a brief report titled “‘Karmayogi’ swears by caste order”, which reviewed the yet unreleased book, ‘Karmayogi’ by Narendra Modi in which he is quoted to have said: “At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries.”


It is these perverse ideas that continue to allow manual scavenging to take place. As Dr Ambedkar said, the caste system is not a division of labour, but a division of labourers. In order to combat manual scavenging, it is essential to recognize this root cause and work towards the annihilation of caste itself.