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The term ‘manual scavenging’ refers to the practice of manually carrying human excreta. This related to the process of removing excreta from dry latrines in the past, but contemporary sanitation systems have introduced other sorts of manual scavenging work, such as manual and unsafe cleaning of drains, sewage lines, septic tanks, and latrine pits.
Sanitation plays a key role in living a healthy life, but in caring for our sanitation the workers who help in keeping us sanitized by cleaning the drains, sewage lines, septic tanks, and latrine pits are often ignored. These workers work in hazardous work conditions, risks their health by many associated problems from manual scavenging, and get meager pay.
The work of manual scavenging is hardly done by choice or assent. It is a kind of forced labor that is supposed to be done by a specific section of society (mostly Dalits). The economic and financial strain often leads these people into the hazardous work of manual scavenging. Leaving this job isn’t an economically viable option as they are left with no alternative employment. As per the Apex Court in 2014, there are over 9.6 million dry latrines that are manually emptied. The states where the practice is common are Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.
PROBLEMS FACED BY MANUAL SCAVENGERS
1. Manual scavengers are always at the risk of losing consciousness and death by asphyxiation resulting from the gases which are toxic and are released in septic tanks and sewers, and wounds from sharp detritus.
2. The manual scavengers do this hazardous work without any protective gear or equipment exposing them to many life-threatening problems. This causes scavengers to suffer indefinitely from medical diseases such as fever, fatigue, cholera, typhoid, asthma, polio, hepatitis, skin burns, and irritation. They are also more susceptible to skin and respiratory tract diseases due to their proximity to working conditions.
3. There is the social stigma attached to the work of manual scavenging, where these workers are excluded from mainstream society and are looked upon as untouchables.
4. These workers are often exploited and harassed at the workplace. The wages they earn are very low and inadequate to support their basic needs.
RIGHTS AND LEGISLATIONS TO PROTECT MANUAL SCAVENGERS
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (“Act”) prohibits the use of dry latrines and all types of manual excrement cleaning, as well as the cleaning of gutters, sewers, and septic tanks without protective equipment. The said Act has various provisions for stringent penalties, for any form of employment in hazardous cleaning undertaken by any person& the same is made punishable. In addition, if a worker dies while performing such hazardous work above mentioned, even with various safety gears, the employer is legally obliged to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the legal heirs of the worker.
1. Article 21 of the constitution of India guarantees the right to life and personal liberty to all. Human dignity has been deemed the most important, fundamental, inalienable, and transcendental of rights by the courts. Equal treatment, respect, and equal protection of the law have all been interpreted as part of dignity.
2. Article 42, under the Directive Principle of State Policy, obliges the State shall undertake steps for securing just and humane conditions of work.
3. Further, Article 43 exposits an obligation that the State shall endeavor to secure to all workers a decent standard of life, including enjoyment, leisure, etc.
The Supreme Court of India, in Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India, ordered the government to entirely eliminate the practice and provide for the rehabilitation of those who have been liberated from manual scavenging. However, there has been no improvement. It is apparent that the courts have taken active steps to guarantee that manual scavengers' human rights are respected, but such efforts are futile without the backing of other government institutions.
India has ratified several international conventions and agreements which protect the rights of manual scavengers.
1. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)- ICESCR recognizes everyone's human right to enjoy favorable and just working conditions, including healthy and safe working conditions, leisure, rest, and periodic vacations with pay, reasonable working hours, and remuneration for public holidays, and everyone's right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; to ensure steps with regard to prevention; control of occupational diseases as per Article 7 &12 of the convention.
2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR)- In addition to the rights guaranteed under ICESCR, social protection & protection against torturous treatment is guaranteed as per the sanction of Article 3, 5, 23 & 24 of the UDHR.
3. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR) - ICCPR directs the state parties to protect the inherent right to life, protection from torturous or degrading treatment directed by Article 6 &7, which can’t be curtailed even during the public emergency as provided by Article 4 of the convention. Article 9 further protects the security of the person.
The rights and life of the manual scavengers need to be protected. There are many incidents of deaths of manual scavengers and catching the life-threatening disease while working unsafely. The condition of manual scavengers can be uplifted with the proper implementation of policies and rights given to them. There is a need to bridge the gap between legislation and its implementation. The legislations and rights provided are adequate for the safety of manual scavengers, but they are never implemented fully on the ground level leaving the conditions of manual scavengers as it is.
 (2011) 15 SCC 611