ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The 'Non-Persons'

The services sewerage workers provide are essential but they are treated with cruel neglect.

For the manual sewerage workers of India, time has stood still. They continue to go unprotected into dark holes of filth and rotting garbage, clearing blockages mostly with bare hands, contracting horrendous skin and respiratory diseases, and worse, dying of asphyxiation by poisonous gases. Recently, the Supreme Court (SC) pulled up civic agencies for ignoring safety norms even as nearly 1,000 sewer workers die every year due to the hazardous work they undertake. Since the 1980s, there have been two SC and more than three high court (HC) rulings regarding their working conditions apart from innumerable media reports and documentation. If anything has changed, it is the “clever” adaptation of the status quo by the authorities and contractors to camouflage their exploitation.

The searing indictment of the various authorities by the courts seems not to have affected the former in the least. In 2011, the SC heard an appeal filed by the Delhi Jal Board challenging an order of the Delhi HC. The HC had ordered the board to pay compensation to the families of dead workers and follow safety norms. The board insisted that the HC had overreached its powers. The SC, in what is considered a landmark ruling, said these workers were being deprived of their fundamental right to equality, life and liberty for over six decades due to the lack of safety equipment and security and pulled up the government in stinging terms. The recent SC order has ruled that the municipal official responsible for engaging workers who die due to such negligence would be jailed for two years and the agency concerned would have to pay Rs 10 lakh to the family. In fact, it has asked for this compensation with retrospective effect from 1993. It has also set a deadline for the centre to publish model rules to guide state governments which in turn must do so with civic agencies under them.

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