Acting on a PIL by a public-spirited citizen, the Tamil Nadu Hight Court has censured the state government for violation of the Eradication of Manual Scavenging & Dry Latrine (Abolition) Act 1993, and for contravening the law by employing manual scavengers in its own civic bodies
Sewerage workers have something to cheer about in Tamil Nadu. A David versus Goliath battle has been going on in Chennai, launched by one public-spirited individual fighting for Tamil Nadu sewerage workers.
Ananth Narayanan of Chennai, shocked by the repeated reports of manual scavengers dying when they enter blocked sewage drains and septic tanks, decided enough was enough. He filed his first public interest litigation against the state government in the Chennai High Court last year, seeking 'the issuance of a writ of mandamus directing the respondents to discontinue the employment of human beings in cleaning manholes and sewerage lines and septic tanks in the state of Tamil Nadu and further direct the respondents to adequately rehabilitate those who are currently employed in cleaning manholes and sewerage lines and pass such further or other orders'.
Narayanan has been waging a battle to ensure that the Tamil Nadu government, which likes to brand itself as a high-tech destination for foreign investment, does what the law requires it to – abolish this inhuman and medieval practice of manual scavenging. In spite of the 1993 Act, even a progressive state like Tamil Nadu through its various civic bodies continues to illegally employ people as ‘manual scavengers’. What makes this stink even more, is that these people are all from the balmiki community. This makes the state government culpable, a party to the continuance of the caste system. Worse still, by the government's own admission, through papers filed in this case before the High Court by Sunil Paliwal, Managing Director of the Chennai Metrowater Supply and Sewerage Board, 17 people died between 2003 and 2008 when “they went inside the drains to clear blocks”.
Ananth Narayanan’s case was so clearly stated, it moved the court to action.
In passing orders on this writ petition, the High Court was unambiguous in its directive to the state government to “ensure that manual scavenging is totally prohibited in the state and that no case of such unwarranted deaths takes place by permitting the gullible employees to enter the drainage system in the metropolitan cities and cleaning of septic tank in other places.”
Narayanan was elated by the victory. I interviewed him on the telephone, in his Chennai home. “Based on my first PIL, we managed to get a favourable verdict of a complete ban on entry of workers into septic tanks and sewer lines for cleaning purposes throughout Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, in the current budget, the state government also sanctioned Rs 6.3 crore for mechanisation and another 22 crore for rehabilitation purposes. In that sense a beginning has been made. But in spite of this clear-cut court order, on the evening of January 6, three workers were ordered to clean a sewer manhole in North Chennai. Ettiappan, a sanitation worker aged 50, died inside the sewer. He drowned in liquid faeces. A fate worse than that of a stray dog. We find that nothing has really changed. No difference for the sanitary workers. This is why I filed a contempt of court petition on January 29, 2009.”
Narayanan suggested to the court that two committees be set up to develop measures to ensure the implementation of the High Court order in letter and spirit. The first, to create awareness, and the second, a technical committee with experts.
In its orders related to the contempt of court petition, the court has directed the government to set up these committees and to nominate members from Metrowater, Chennai Corporation and also MAWS department to the committee.
The court has also asked the government to send copies of this order to other voluntary and technical organisations to get their consent to be part of the committee and report back on July 7, 2009.
Ananth Narayanan went on to point out that “the court in their earlier June 16 order, directed the special government pleader to report back on what measures the government has taken to implement the Eradication of Manual Scavenging & Dry Latrine (Abolition) Act 1993, like appointing investigating and prosecuting authorities under the Act.”
But the special government pleader was forced to admit orally in court that “though the government of Tamil Nadu has notified the Act it has not appointed the necessary authorities to investigate and prosecute violations.”
The state government under this Act is required to appoint a district magistrate to act as an executive authority to ensure that the provisions of the Act are carried out. The Act also provides for imprisonment up to one year for violations of the law.
Ananth Narayanan explained the stumbling block in procedure, “It is pertinent to note that not even one prosecution, leave alone conviction, has happened anywhere in India since the above Act was enacted and no state government has appointed such authorities to monitor violations and file cases in the court. Hence this Act remains, since its inception 16 years ago, a snake without fangs.”
No wonder then that perpetrators of different forms of manual scavenging continue to carry on with impunity. The system is full of contradictions and flaws, as Narayanan is quick to point out. “It is the state machinery such as corporations and municipalities which are the largest violators. How will they take action against themselves? Now that the Madras High Court has asked the government some difficult questions, we hope progress can be made elsewhere in other states too.”
The 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers & Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act is very stringent. Narasimha Rao, when he was prime minister, vowed to eradicate manual scavenging. It was his pet project. Apart from ensuring the passing of this Act, he set up the Commission for Safai Karmacharis with the prime minister as chair, attended countless meetings himself and sanctioned crores for the rehabilitation of sanitation workers. In spite of all this, very little has changed.
In the last 10 years, a number of NGOs, mainly dalit organisations like the Safai Karmachari Andolan, Navsarjan Trust, Jan Sahas and several others, have worked hard to bring this issue to the attention of the courts. In 2003, they succeeded in filing a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court which focused national interest on the issue. It was a historic victory, that senior secretaries of eight states were summoned to the SC, and forced to admit that their governments had lied to the SC in stating that manual scavenging did not exist in their states.
But in spite of all this pressure, state governments are doing little or nothing to ensure that the Act is implemented.
Last year, I documented the progress of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a movement for the eradication of manual scavenging and restoring dignity to the community in Punjab and Haryana. They had managed by their meticulous documentation to prove in the Supreme Court that the senior secretaries of eight states had lied to the SC on the existence of manual scavenging in their states. The SKA activists and volunteers had gone door to door armed with lists of illegal (since 1993) dry latrine owners and of the women who cleaned those toilets. They took video and still cameras and captured evidential footage of the cleaning women coming out of the latrines with brooms, buckets and containers of faecal matter. Simultaneously, they got TV channels to send their reporters and carried footage of their findings.
We discovered that neither the law, nor the courts, nor public civic education made the slightest impact on the semi-educated, semi-rural, lower middle class users and owners of dry latrines. They were indifferent and hostile to talk of “practicing untouchability” or the plight of the women cleaning their shit. What made a huge impact and had them scrambling to install flush toilets was the shame of appearing on television channels as feudal, disgusting people whom the neighbours would laugh at. The name and shame and televise policy worked. No one wanted to be caught with their pants down! It was one of the rare times when people didn’t want to be on TV!
We therefore need a two-pronged attack in this battle for dignity. One, against the owners and users of dry latrines. And two, against the officials whose callousness and indifferent neglect allow those illegal latrines to be still in existence. Our laws will continue to be ignored and circumvented unless stringent action is taken against the officials who fail to do their duty. We need to get the media to go after the perpetrators and film them and shame them on television as was done in Punjab, Haryana and other states. We need to show our public the face of the corpse pulled out from the sewer, blackened and swollen, and explain that this is what happens to someone who drowns in a sewer, asphyxiated by toxic gases. Juxtapose that with the picture of the man -- alive, well and smiling, and his family. And then interview the officials responsible for his death and indict that official for his\her role in the murder of a sanitation worker.
In order for this to happen, more activists, NGOs and public-spirited citizens must get involved in filing PILs and conducting a name and shame campaign against the errant officials.
Infochange News & Features, July 2009