The Supreme Court on Tuesday pulled up the Centre for its callousness in not enacting a law to ban manual scavenging despite giving repeated assurances that it would soon amend the relevant Act.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday pulled up the Centre for its callousness in not enacting a law to ban manual scavenging despite giving repeated assurances that it would soon amend the relevant Act.

Earlier, Additional Solicitor General Harin Raval told a Bench of Justices H.L. Dattu and C.K. Prasad that the Cabinet note was ready for bringing amendments to the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act and once the Cabinet approved them, a Bill would be introduced. When the Bench asked whether the Bill would be introduced in the ongoing Parliament session, Mr. Raval said, “In all likelihood, it would be introduced but I can’t give an assurance since the matter has to be approved by the Cabinet.”

Justice Dattu told the ASG: “The petitioner informs us that 15 workers had died in septic tanks and manholes in Tamil Nadu alone in the last 18 months. What action are you taking? This matter has been pending in this court for more than one year. We hear only assurances, but no action seems to have been taken.”

Referring to an affidavit filed by the Centre that appropriate steps would soon be taken to amend the law at the earliest, Justice Prasad told the ASG: “We don’t want this type of vague affidavit. This shows you [the Centre] are not serious. You are saying the same thing for the last six months. You are fooling the people of this country. It is really unfortunate that even after 65 years of Independence manual scavenging should continue in this country. The Directive Principles of State Policy [in the Constitution] mandates us to prohibit manual scavenging but you are not serious in introducing appropriate legislation.”

During the last hearing in March, Mr. Raval told the court that the government would bring in comprehensive legislation on emancipation of sanitary workers involved in all forms of manual scavenging, sewerage cleaning, septic tank cleaning, etc, in the monsoon session.

On Tuesday, the Bench, not satisfied with Centre’s affidavit, asked the ASG to inform the court on August 27 whether the Bill would be introduced in the monsoon session or not so that it could pass appropriate orders. The ASG agreed to take instructions and inform the court of the government’s position that day.

The Bench was hearing an appeal filed by the Union of India against a June 2011 Madras High Court order, which said if the Centre failed to amend the law to prevent manual scavenging in two months, the court would be constrained to direct the personal appearance of any of the high dignitaries, be it from the PMO Secretariat or other departments. On appeal by the Centre, the Supreme Court stayed the order and issued notice to respondent A. Narayanan of Virugambakkam in Chennai, on whose PIL petition the High Court issued the directions.

Mr. Narayanan, pleading for vacating the stay, drew the court’s attention to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speech last year about eliminating manual scavenging within six months. Though more than 10 months had passed nothing was done. Moreover, newer forms of manual scavenging such as sewer manhole and septic tank cleaning were going on. He said the heinous practice was being followed in no place except India, Pakistan and a few other South East Asian countries where the job was exclusively reserved for the so-called lowest castes.

Counsel Santosh Paul appeared for Mr. Narayanan.

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