Explained: Manual Scavengers Act, 2013

Reading time: 6-8 minutes.

Manual Scavenging is a dehumanizing and caste-based practice deeply rooted in Indian society for ages. This undignified practice requires a manual scavenger to manually remove untreated human excreta from bucket toilets or pit latrines by hands with buckets and shovels. This practice is not only problematic given the right to health and the right to life; it is also a threat to human dignity and raises questions of discrimination and casteism.

 Although this practice is outlawed by the Employment of Manual Scavenger & Construction of Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, and Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavenger & their Rehabilitation Act 2013, it continues to plague the downtrodden sections of the society.

National Commission for Safai Karamcharis report on deaths of manual scavengers from January 2017-18 depicts that, in India, every five days, a manual scavenger dies in a sewer, septic tank, or a manhole. Not only this, but according to the Census of 2011, there are more than 2.6 million dry latrines in the country. There are 13,14,652 toilets where human excreta is flushed in open drains, 7,94,390 dry latrines where human excreta is cleaned manually. These facts disclose the sorry state of affairs in our country and the gross failure of this well-intentioned legislation in curbing the barbaric practice.

Salient features of Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavangers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013

Due to the loopholes in the Act of 1993, the government passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers & their Rehabilitation Act 2013, which reinforced the ban on manual scavenging. Following are the key features-

  • It bans manual scavenging and also discharges employees who are engaged in this practice on a contractual or regular basis.
  • It widened the definition of manual scavengers by including in it all forms of manual removal of human excreta like an open drain, pit latrine, septic tanks, manholes, and removal of excreta on the railway tracks. 
  • It lays key focus on rehabilitating the manual scavengers by providing them with ready-built houses, financial assistance & loans for taking up alternate occupation on a sustainable basis, organizing training programs for the scavengers so that they can opt for some other profession at a stipend of Rs. 3000 and offering scholarships to their children under the relevant scheme of the government.
  • The Act makes the offense of manual scavenging cognizable and non-bailable.
  • It calls for a survey of manual scavenging in urban & rural areas and the conversion of insanitary latrines into sanitary latrines.
  • It makes it obligatory for employers to provide protective tools to the workers.

Objectives & purpose of the Act

The 2013 legislation aims to provide manual scavengers the Right to live with dignity enshrined under the Constitution, to protect weaker sections from social injustice, to end the continuing existence of insanitary latrines and a highly unfair caste system, to rehabilitate them to a life of dignity and to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the them. In the light of inadequacy and failure of the previous law in eliminating the evils of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging, the present act came into force.

Why was the act introduced?

Many areas were untouched by the 1993 Act, which needed to be taken into account. The perspective of the Act of 1993 was limited to sanitation. It covered only dry latrines, and the definition of manual scavenging was restricted to a person employed for manually carrying human excreta. There was no stress laid upon the rehabilitation of these workers. The lenient penal punishment of one-year imprisonment and fine of Rs. 2000 could not create deterrence in society, as was evident from the deaths of manual scavengers.

The courts have also adopted a stern attitude towards manual scavenging and criticized the state authorities for failing to eliminate this practice in Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India, where the Honourable Court highlighted the importance of rehabilitation so that present, as well as future generations, could be prevented from working as a manual scavenger. Thus, arose the need for entirely new legislation.

Analysis of progress made under it 

The New Act of 2013 brought under the purview of manual scavenging the Indian Railways as well. This has led to the coming up of bio-toilets in trains for treating human excreta.

According to the Government of India, there are 54,130 manual scavengers across 13 states post 2013. However, the newspaper reports say that the number is understated as the survey was conducted only in areas where there are reasons to believe the existence of manual scavengers. The survey was conducted in 170 districts in 18 states. The newspaper report states that if the official surveys of the 2011 census are compared with the data after 2013, a lot of imbalance is detected in reporting the real number of manual scavengers.

For instance, UP is among the most imbalanced state where there is a very high number of service latrines and a relatively low number of manual scavengers. It is also believed that the benefits of 2013 Act do not reach all the affected families, which defeats the very purpose of this legislation.

Scope of improvement 

The act of 2013 under Section 2(g) provides that in cases where protective gear is provided, the person employed to do the task would not be deemed as a manual scavenger, which is a flawed provision. The responsibility to provide for such safety gear rests upon the employer. Most of the municipal cleaning is outsourced, and thus, this responsibility falls on the private employers who fail to comply with the provisions under Rule 5 of the Act.

Another question is whether these safety tools are useful enough to protect the workers from life-threatening diseases like hepatitis, typhoid, cholera, jaundice, and other toxic gases. Thus, the issue needs to be revisited by the parliament. 

Another issue is the provision of treating these cases as a summary trial as it would compromise on the gravity of the offense. In Cr.P.C., a summary trial is conducted in the non-cognizable offenses only. However, this practice is termed as cognizable and non-bailable under the present act. 

The act fails to prescribe the time for the conversion of insanitary latrine into sanitary ones. Thus, the time must be specified.

Conclusion

There are various legislations, and budget allocations made by the parliament to end this practice not much has been achieved in this regard. No legislation can bore fruits without the countenance of the people of the country. There is no doubt that the schemes of the government have failed miserly due to the loopholes in the system, but the origin of this problem is the existence and continuance of the caste system in the society to date. The stigma attached to casteism has to be done away if we, as a nation, want to tread upon the path of progress. 

Community initiatives are crucial for abolishing manual scavenging. The community should discourage and stop subletting the service like sewer cleaning. People should pledge to adopt sanitary practices and vow to not encourage or employ manual scavengers for such menial tasks. 

There is a need to adopt a National Level monitoring system comprising of representatives from concerned ministries, social workers from NGOs working for this   cause, and other members from the public interested in the cause. This committee will keep a close check on the implementation of the present Act and related schemes to find loopholes in the system, which can be taken into account for ensuring an efficient system in place. 

Lastly, NGOs working for this noble cause should be roped into work along with the government to ensure the proper implementation of the act in urban as well as rural areas.

Author: Mehak Mehra from University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

Editor: Tamanna Gupta from RGNUL, Patiala

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