Chief Secretary directed to follow up the matter with Centre

Deprecating an affidavit filed by the Union Housing Secretary, the Madras High Court on Thursday said if the Centre fails to amend the law to prevent manual scavenging in two months, it will be constrained to direct the personal appearance of any of the high dignitaries, be it, from the PMO Secretariat or other departments.

Passing further orders on an application in a contempt petition, the First Bench comprising Chief Justice M.Y.Eqbal and Justice T.S.Sivagnanam also directed the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary to follow up the matter with the Centre. On the next date of hearing, August 22, he should file an affidavit stating the steps that would be taken by the State government for compliance of the court order.

Posting the matter for August 22, the Bench issued a caution that by that time if necessary amendments were not made, it would be constrained to direct personal appearance of any of the high dignitaries, be it, from the PMO Secretariat, Housing Department or the Ministry of Law and Justice.

Earlier, A.Narayanan of Virugambakkam had filed a contempt petition seeking to punish the officials for not complying with a High Court order of 2008 on eradication of manual scavenging.

On June 16, the Bench had directed the appearance of the Union Housing Secretary before the court on Thursday and file an affidavit on the steps taken to enact an appropriate law to totally ban manual scavenging and when the law would be implemented.

When the matter came up, the Union Housing Secretary, Kiran Dhingra, was not present. Her affidavit was filed in which she submitted that the Housing Ministry had taken all possible steps including the drafting of amendments to the existing law, “Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines(Prohibition) Act” to widen the definition of manual scavenging to cover cleaning of sewers, drains and tanks.

In its order, the Bench observed that the Additional Solicitor-General submitted that actually he was of the impression that the case has been posted for June 29 and therefore, proper steps had not been taken. However, the Joint Secretary in the Union Housing Ministry appeared in person with the Secretary's affidavit expressing Ms.Dhingra's inability to come to the court. The affidavit said inter alia that after the Chairperson, National Advisory Council, had sent a letter to the Prime Minister recommending appropriate amendments to the law, the Prime Minister himself was monitoring the situation.

“We deprecate such affidavit filed by the Secretary.” The court observed that it was really surprising that for the last six months it had been issuing directions for necessary amendments to the Act in order to prevent manual scavenging, but nothing had been done till date. The Housing Secretary “very conveniently escaped her appearance in court.”