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INDIA: Authorities feign ignorance on dead manual scavenger

April 9, 2014

INDIA: Authorities feign ignorance about dead manual scavenger

The Asian Human Rights Commission has learned about the death of Pawan, a sanitation worker who died while cleaning sewerage in Chauka Ghat, Varanasi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. As per news reports, Pawan entered a manhole without protective gear. This occurred despite the practice of manual cleaning of human excreta, in any form or place, having been outlawed by the Supreme Court.

On 27 March 2014, the Supreme Court of India imposed a categorical ban on anyone entering, or being forced to enter, manholes, unless there is an emergency. Even in times of exigency, such manual cleaning of human excreta can now only be permitted with the written approval of a Chief Executive Officer and with all protective gears in place. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has ordered all provincial governments to strictly enforce the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, and to take immediate measures to eradicate manual scavenging.

Pawan's death, which follows 3 similar deaths in the state of Gujarat, belittles hopes raised by the verdict. The verdict, for the first time, puts command responsibility of such a death on the Chief Executive Officer (or the equivalent post) and institutes compensation of Rupees 10 lakh in the case of such an eventuality.

However, forget accepting the command responsibility fixed by the Supreme Court, the authorities even feign ignorance even about how the deceased worker was associated with sewerage work when alerted by media and other sanitation workers. The criminal disdain that government officials have for the orders of the higher judiciary betrays itself further in the mandate given to the one member inquiry committee constituted by the General Manager. The committee has been mandated to look into how Pawan was associated with such work and to inquire which contractor/department served as his employer. A committee with such a limited mandate can only be expected to present an eyewash report for saving the CEO, the General Manager of Jal Nigam in this case who is responsible for the death as per Supreme Court's order.

Unfortunately, the situation is not peculiar to Varanasi. The rot runs throughout the state of Uttar Pradesh, the very country itself. As the Uttar Pradesh Safai Majdoor Sangh keeps pointing out, such deaths are routine and seldom is action taken against the guilty. Though data on such deaths is hard to come by, activist S. Anand has estimated that at least 22,237 men and women die in India doing some kind of sanitation work every year. Of these, deaths in manholes are estimated to be at least one or two per day.

The AHRC condemns the disdain of the authorities for the lives of citizens it is oath bound to protect. The AHRC also holds the authorities actions to be in criminal contempt of the Supreme Court. The AHRC demands immediate end to such practice. It demands compensation for Pawan and all others claimed by such illegal acts, as per Supreme Court orders. Lastly, the AHRC demands prosecution of the Chief Executive Officer of the zonal office of the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam responsible for the sewage system for Pawan's death.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.


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