[Scavengers]Revisit PEMSR 2013 to uplift manual scavengers

Update time:2021-08-18 00:48Tag:

  Those engaged in the inhuman vocation of manual scavenging have been doing this work over generations; and when they retire, their sons or daughters take over the mantle thereafter and this goes on. Several thousands of people are engaged in one of the worst forms of manual scavenging, that is emptying and cleaning insanitary latrines in their locality each day, and carry the human excreta on their head before dumping it.

  Most of them have actually been waiting in great distress for the moment when they and their families would be liberated from this vicious circle of this inhuman treatment, exploitation, paltry income, poverty, caste-based oppression and persecution, health hazards and related fatal consequences and ultimately death.

  Despite the inception of a legal regime like the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR 2013) prohibiting the practice of manual scavenging, it is still in practice as a hereditary vocation in India. In Safai Karamchari Vs Union of India, 2014, the Supreme Court came down heavily on State Governments and directed them to strictly abide by their duty in implementing the PEMSR law.

  The court also held manual scavenging to be in clear violation of Article 17, which abolishes untouchability inter alia other statutes. Besides, on September 18, 2019, the Supreme Court observed, “In no country, people are sent to gas chambers to die. Every month four to five people lose their lives in manual scavenging.”

  According to reports, in the nine years since the 2013 law was passed, more than 1,000 persons died while working as manual scavengers and it is deplorable that there has been no conviction so far. However, first information reports (FIRs) were filed in only 462 cases and in major instances, that is, in just 418 cases, only Section 304 (death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 was invoked. And almost forty-four cases were registered as accidental deaths. And in just 37 cases or less than 1%, Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, was invoked, which is the actual law ought to be invoked in such cases.

  According to human rights activist Bezwada Wilson, “The deaths are often not recorded. If an FIR is filed, it is done so half-heartedly, with no mention of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act or The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.” Wilson further remarked, “Often, the authorities are not even to accept the death was caused by manual scavenging but instead put the blame on the labourers for being drunk and negligent,”

  Fact remains that the failure to impose the SC/ST Atrocities Act is owing to the denial of caste as a prominent basis of perpetuation of manual scavenging.

  Interestingly, the anti-manual scavenging legislation passed in 1993 had no reference to caste, and the same has been repeated in the 2013 Act and that it just referred to ‘the dehumanising of society’. Another important lacuna of the 2013 Act is that, the Act fails to define what is meant by protective gear, while it allows scavenging with protective gears and consequently the officials and contractors interpret the ‘protective gear’ according to their own convenience and end up endangering the lives of the manual scavengers.

  It is now necessary to introduce a new Bill that would make the law against manual scavenging more stringent and strengthened and to take steps so as to completely abolish and eradicate the practice of manual scavenging through, mechanisation of sewer cleaning and bringing in a well-defined provision of ‘protective gear’ even for operation of the machines and providing better protection at work and adequate compensation in case of accidents. Mechanisation of sewer cleaning can go a long way in bringing in immediate difference to the manual scavengers. The Delhi Government’s endeavour to convert sanitation workers to ‘sani-entrepreneurs’, who are supposed to become the owners of sewer cleaning machines is a step further. This was actually inspired by a project launched in Telangana and both the projects are the brainchild of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

  Besides, the Government schemes aimed at empowering and dissuading those engaged in manual scavenging to move away from this practice to other vocations, such as the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), where manual scavengers are given one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000, loans to start a new business, as well as for paid training and skill-building with a stipend of Rs 3,000 per month up to two years, should be encouraged.

  Apart from this, the recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission for enhancing the one-time cash assistance from Rs 40,000 to Rs one lakh for manual scavengers under the SRMS should be implemented.

  (The writer is a lawyer and public policy expert and a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law and Media Studies, School of Mass Communication, KIIT University, besides being Advisor of Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. He can be reached at