November 23, 2017
It has been over two-and-half years since the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules, 2013, was notified in the gazette by the Tamil Nadu Government, banning the inhuman practice of engaging any person for hazardous cleaning of sewer or septic tank. The central Act passed on September 18, 2013 aims at restoring human dignity.
Yet, engaging manual scavengers to clear manhole blocks and drainages is not uncommon in the State. Prohibition of manual scavenging aside, there are other basic mandates which remain only on paper.
Chapter IV of the Act speaks about the identification of manual scavengers in urban and rural areas and their rehabilitation. Sections 11 and 14 deal with the methodology of the survey of manual scavengers in urban areas by municipalities. Sections 12 and 15 talk about the application by urban and rural manual scavengers respectively for identification. Sections 13 and 16 are about the rehabilitation scheme for persons identified as manual scavengers by the urban and rural local bodies respectively.
But even the basics of the Act have not been ensured at least in Tamil Nadu, leave alone banning manual scavenging, if the writ petition filed by advocate Sahaya Philomin Raj in the Madras High Court Bench in Madurai is any indication.
Raj along with a few activists formed Madurai Legal Awareness Coordination Committee which has been meeting the scavenging workers in Madurai and Virudhunagar districts to create awareness about the special Act and also among the local body staff.
Pointing out the 2011 Census, he says there are 769 houses in Virudhunagar district and 942 houses in Madurai district where night soil is removed manually by scavengers. “This is the official household count and does not account for the servicing that is required in crowded public places, slums and open defecation haunts,” he says, quoting counterview.org.
While many of the scavenging workers must have been identified and given identity cards which would make them avail rehabilitation benefits as per law, neither the local bodies nor the government agencies have come forward to tell the workers about the prohibition because of which they are unaware of the rehabilitation measures enumerated in the Act, Raj says.
He submitted that the district administrations have not taken any step to conduct census, identify and declare them as manual scavengers, but his team could identify over 100 of them in each of the 2 districts in a short duration.
The team handed over the applications for 56 identified manual scavengers to Madurai collector and 85 of them to Corporation Commissioner to provide them identity cards, but in vain. No action was taken by Virudhunagar collector too on applications of 169 scavenging workers.
He also places on record another serious charge that camps conducted by municipalities to facilitate their enrolment is only an eyewash. “During the camps held for 3 days from Feb 22, 2016 in the two districts, the authorities instead of registering their names warned the scavengers of dire consequences and threatened that they would lose their jobs if they insisted on registration,” he claims.
His counsel R Karunanidhi points out that the central government has also prepared and issued an elaborate ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ for undertaking survey on manual scavengers in statutory towns and for monitoring the progress of survey.
The petitioner’s prayer to issue identity cards to the applicants, establish survey and vigilant committees and undertake survey within a timeframe was on Thursday heard by a division bench of justices Venugopal and Abdul Quthoose who directed the municipal administration secretary and the two district collectors to file a counter.