Last week, I listened in rapt attention to a young lawyer, 26-year-old Isha Singh, recount her success in a pro bono writ petition she filed in the Bombay High Court. More than 200 students of the HR College of Commerce and Kishanchand Chellaram College, both prestigious institutions located in South Bombay, had invited her to recap her efforts to seek compensation and justice for three widows of manual scavengers who had lost their lives while unclogging Mumbai’s sewers.
A young lawyer has succeeded in her efforts to seek compensation for widows of manual scavengers who died while unclogging Mumbai’s sewers.
The evil practice of manual scavenging had been banned by the promulgation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013. Municipal and local bodies entrusted with the task of disposing of solid waste in ever-burgeoning cities had been left with no alternative but to invest in costly machines and accoutrements to do the job of cleaning the sewers and protecting lives.
Some municipalities were short of money, but even the well-heeled ones like Mumbai relegated this task to low priority. I ascribe this attitude to the fact that in our caste-ridden society this task of cleaning sewers manually is assigned to one community alone. And to compound the crime of neglect, the economic situation does not permit the traditional scavengers from seeking alternative sources of income. Their children take the more easily available route of an assured job even if they are well educated since the job market today is unfavourable.
The inhuman tradition of employing manual scavengers is still widely prevalent in Maharashtra and a few other states. The municipalities cross legal hurdle by arranging for willing hands through the medium of contractors. The 2013 legislation had made offences covered by the Act non-bailable. My dear friend, Kewal Semlani, before he breathed his last some years ago, was passionately involved in fighting this evil. The well-known social activist and Magsaysay Awardee, Bezwada Wilson, is involved in the stoppage of this cruel practice, known only in the Indian subcontinent.
The Public Concern for Governance Trust (PCGT) which engages young students in studies of such injustices prevalent in our society has been researching the problem for the past one year. It began with three interns from TISS who started the ball rolling. It was taken up by students of law and other disciplines who produced added inputs for a research treatise that is in the making.
In the meantime, Isha came into our orbit. Unknown to us, she and her mother Abha, a friend and the wife of YP Singh, an IPS officer who resigned because he could not stomach the injustices spawned by the work culture, had befriended three widows of such scavengers who died by inhaling toxic gasses in the sewers. Mother and daughter, both lawyers, took up their cause pro bono and approached the High Court for compensation to the three women.
Isha argued the case so passionately that the judges delivered a land-mark judgment, identifying the office of the District Collector as the institution primarily responsible for the safety and the lives of the manual scavengers, even though they died cleaning the septic tank of a private housing society. The court accepted her argument of ‘strict liability’. Since manual scavenging is banned, it is the state’s duty to ensure no person is engaged as a scavenger, and is strictly liable for it. The BMC was ordered to pay Rs 10 lakh to each widow, a small substitute for lives lost, but welcomed all the same by impecunious families who had lost their bread winners. The court also directed the government to rehabilitate the widows and their families by way of scholarships etc. It also questioned what action the police had taken, and why nobody had been convicted for the crime.
The PCGT lost no time in inviting Isha to address our students. Her commitment to the cause, her compassion, her knowledge of the subject and the sheer force of her spoken word impressed us. She has been selected for my old service, the IPS. Her mother belonged to my father’s service, the Indian Postal Service. She, too, resigned after 20 years. YP and Abha are practising in the High Court. I wish we had more young people like her joining the All-India Services.
After the catastrophe that has hit the service in Maharashtra recently, with the police on the lookout for its now absconding leader, the mantle of redemption in the shape of this young new entrant is heart-warming. We require officers with a social service bent of mind.
Last week, Abha invited members of the press to impress upon them the inhumanity involved in using humans to clean sewers. The fact that the authorities take scarce notice of the law, that they break the law repeatedly, that no thought is given to the human rights of the poor, that compensation is the least the municipality or the government can do for families living on the verge of penury, that the state should think of adopting fatherless children and educate them.
But this subject is not of sufficient interest to their readers, conditioned as our traditional society is in allocating jobs by caste.
PCGT representatives present for the press conference did speak out for the scavengers. They came away with the realisation that an uphill task awaits them. PCGT’s young students came across jail manuals in some states where prisoners on arrival are allotted tasks on the basis of their caste. One would have thought that such a practice is repugnant to the basic values prescribed in the Constitution. All political parties swear to end caste discrimination. But it is there in the jail manuals, in black and white, and will remain there till an Isha or an ex-intern of the PCGT brings it to the notice of the courts.
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