The Centre on Friday informed the Supreme Court that appropriate steps would soon be taken to amend the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 to eliminate manual scavenging.

Additional Solicitor General Harin Raval told a Bench of Justices H.L. Dattu and C.K. Prasad that necessary amendments would be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament. The ASG also assured the court that the government would bring a new comprehensive law for total emancipation of sanitary workers involved in all forms of manual scavenging, sewerage cleaning and septic tank cleaning within a time-frame.

The Bench was hearing an appeal filed by the Union of India against a Madras High Court order passed in June 2011 stating that 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 the respondent A. Narayanan of Virugambakkam, on whose public interest litigation (PIL) petition the High Court had issued the directions.

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Mr. Narayanan, pleading for vacating the stay, drew the attention of the court to the speech made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year about eliminating manual scavenging within 6 months. He said though more than six months had passed nothing had been done.

He pointed out that newer forms of manual scavenging such as sewer manhole and septic tank cleaning was going on.

He pointed out that the heinous practice was being followed in no other place except India, Pakistan and a few other South-East Asian countries where it isreserved for so-called lowest castes.

Mr. Narayanan wanted the government to make necessary changes in the law as otherwise a solution would be elusive.

Justifying the directions issued by the High Court, he said they were aimed at providing social justice. He pointed out that as per the directions of the Madras High Court, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a unanimous resolution on September 10, 2011 urging the Union of India to enact suitable amendments to the 1993 Act by modifying certain clauses, including the scope of definition of manual scavenger, power to exempt, appointment of implementing authorities, power of executing authority to prevent environment pollution among others.

Mr. Narayanan said: “The working conditions of the sanitary workers have remained virtually unchanged for over a century. Using only a stick broom and a small tin plate, the sanitary workers clear faeces from public and private latrines onto baskets or other containers, which they then carry on their heads to dumping grounds and disposal sites. A few, however, are provided with wheelbarrows or carts by the municipal authorities. Apart from the social atrocities that these workers face, they are exposed to several health problems by virtue of their occupation. These sanitary workers are made to literally go down the drains every day — without safety precautions and supervision and without any emergency medical support. The hazards include exposure to harmful gases such as methane and hydrogen sulphide leading to instant death and/or cardiovascular degeneration, musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis changes and intervertebral disc herniation, infections like hepatitis, leptospirosis and helicobacter, skin problems, respiratory system problems and altered pulmonary function parameters.”

The Bench posted the matter for further hearing after six weeks.

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