The Madras High Court on Tuesday took a serious view on manual scavenging deaths and asked civic authorities in Tamil Nadu to take stringent criminal action against the heads of a corporation or municipality concerned, if a worker is engaged in manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks and dies of asphyxiation. A bench comprising Chief Justice Sandib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy gave the suggestion, when a public interest writ petition from Safai Karamchari Andolan came up for further hearing.
The petitioner alleged that as many as 14 persons had died when they entered into the septic tanks for the purpose of cleaning, in 2020. Six more had died till the filing of the petition this year, the petitioner added.
"Despite passing orders and filing detailed status reports till December 2019, the practice still prevails and people are dying in pits," the bench noted.
Expressing its disappointment at the spate of manual scavenging accidents occurring constantly in Tamil Nadu, the bench said that it is high time that the heads of corporations and municipalities are held personally liable for the deaths occurring within their jurisdictions and it must be made clear to them by the appropriate authorities.
As per the data collected by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, since 2017, one sanitation worker had died every five days in India while cleaning sewers or septic tanks. The main cause of deaths was the depletion of oxygen and the presence of toxic gases, mostly hydrogen sulphide at the bottom of the septic tank, the petitioner said.
Taking serious note of the alleged lackadaisical approach of the state in the issue, the judges directed it to file a detailed report within six weeks from each of the districts about the steps taken to eliminate the problem.
The court also directed the state to provide adequate compensation to the persons who lost their lives. Even during the lockdown, Tamil Nadu recorded eight sewer deaths till October 2020, which was the highest in the country.
The practice of manual scavenging is banned under the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013. As per the Act, any person who engages or employs, either directly or indirectly, a manual scavenger are punishable with one year imprisonment or a fine of Rs 50,000, or both. For repeating the same offence, the imprisonment is for two years or a fine of Rs 1 lakh, or both.