By LE Desk

Chenai, April 7: The Madras high court on Wednesday said that civic heads of corporations and municipalities must be booked if any more deaths occur due to manual scavenging “irrespective of whether engaged by them or (a) contractor”.

The bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy made the observations while dealing with a batch of pending petitions filed against manual scavenging with one of the petitioners being the pan-Indian non-governmental organisation Safai Karamchari Andolan, the Hindustan Times reported.

The Chief Justice even contemplated if civic heads should be booked on charges of culpable homicide. 

“The court noted its earlier direction dated 16th March that the Government should make it clear to all heads of municipal corporations and municipalities in the state that any manual scavenging death within the jurisdiction of the relevant municipality or corporation will result in the commissioner or such authority being made to face criminal charges, and today further observed that unless the heads of local bodies were themselves made liable under Sec 304A of the Indian Penal Code, the menace would not be rooted out,” said Srinath Sridevan, counsel appearing for Safai Karamchari Andolan.

Manual scavenging has been banned since 1993 in India but it continues unabated with several deaths reported due to asphyxiation. By February 2021, Tamil Nadu had registered six deaths due to manual scavenging.

The court stated that it was inclined to find a permanent solution for which it asked the state government to procure equipment tailor-made for cleaning the sewage system or overhaul the current method.

The counsel for the state government, Jayaprakash Narayan informed the court that a circular has been issued that work orders of contractors will be cancelled and they will be blacklisted if they engage manual scavengers. He added that the state is mobilising funds to procure machinery for cleaning sewerage.

The matter was adjourned for two weeks as the petitioner Safai Karamchari Andolan sought more time to respond to replies filed by the state government and the Greater Chennai Corporation on the issue. The NGO’s counsel told the court that there had been no deaths due to manual scavenging since the court’s last order on the issue on March 16. The court asked the state as well as the NGO to give inputs so that it could issue guidelines to “put this nonsense to a complete end”.

In its previous order, the court said it was “high time” that heads of corporations and municipalities were held “personally liable” for deaths due to manual scavenging within their jurisdiction and face immediate arrest on criminal charges.

The Madras high court’s order was long overdue, said Safai Karamchari Andolan activists.

“We are very happy with the order passed today,” said its national co-convener Deepthi Sukumar.

“Whenever there is a death, the government blames the contractor. The order fixes accountability and is an important measure in preventing deaths inside sewers.”

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