Human Rights Diary April 2014

What is the point of laws, and judgments to back these laws, when the ground has not changed?

'We pervert reason when we humiliate life man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fel­low-creatures." - Jose Saramago

Sewage travels across Delhi's 5,600- kilometer sewer lines at the speed of one meter per second. That is a rather leisurely pace of 3.6 km per hour - the time an obese person may take to com­plete one round of Lodi Gardens. Along this river of filth - the Ganga is just half this length - there are 1.5 lakh man­holes servicing the effluents released by the capital's 15 million people. Much of this 'infrastructure' was designed more than 100 years ago. According to an estimate I made in 2007, at least 22,327 men and women die in India every year doing various kinds of sanitation work.  Figures are hard to come by, since these concerns the deaths of a section of pop­ulation that most of India refuses to see. Santosh Choudhary, then chairperson of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, had told me in 2007 that at least "two to three workers must be dying every day inside manholes across India."
On the morning of March 27, Bez­wada Wilson of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) sent a message to his well-wishers about the impending rul­ing of the Supreme Court in a Public Interest Litigation that had dragged on for 12 years. All that SKA had been seek­ing was the enforcement of fundamen­tal rights guaranteed in the Constitution under Articles 14 (Right to Equality), 17 (Abolition of untouchabil­ity ), 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) and 47 (Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the stan­dard of living and to. improve public health).

Judgment with a caveat

Later in the day, the three-judge Su­preme Court Bench headed by the Chief Justice, P. Sathasivam, issued direc­tions to the state, the railways, and sev­eral organizations to implement the provisions of the Prohibition of Em­ployment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 - itself a result of SKA's relentless efforts. While everyone congratulated Mr. Wilson and the SKA team, a part of me froze at the sight of a certain clause in the judgment.

After ruling that "entering sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime even in emergency sit­uations," the Bench added a caveat: "For each such death, compensation of Rs.l0 lakhs should be given to the family of the deceased."

Share on Google Plus