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Gujarat gutter deaths due to asphyxiation: National Human Rights Commission reacts

The National Human Rights Commission report on the death of two safai karmacharis in a gutter due to asphyxiation:
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The Commission received a complaint dated 24.11.2022 from Sh. Kantilal U.Parmar, Social Worker, Ahmedabad alleging that two safai karamchari died in a gutter due to gas on 23.11.2022 as they entered in gutter without safety gear. It is negligence of local authority. It is a violation of Gujarat High Court verdict and Supreme Court guidelines. The complainant has requested to book FIR under section 304, 337, 338, and other sections of IPC, Prohibition of employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. The complainant also requested to provide compensation of Rs 25 lacs each to the dependent of family members.
Though existing regulations and several Supreme Court judgments have prohibited manual cleaning of sewer lines and septic tanks without taking enough safety precautions, still so many workers are dying while undertaking this work and it continues to be an issue of concern. Sewer lines and septic tanks are like death traps. The 2014 Supreme Court judgment prohibits anyone from working in sewers and septic tanks. The Commission has also been emphasizing upon the authorities from time to time to ensure proper arrangements of safety of the workers but the incident of causing threat to human lives are taking place regularly across the country.
The Commission accordingly takes cognizance of the complaint and issues notices to the Chief Secretary, Govt. of Gujarat calling for a detailed report
and on the following within four weeks :-
1. Whether the compensation amount of Rs.10 lakhs each paid to the next of kin of the three deceased persons as per the judgment of Hon. Supreme Court of India.
2. Whether the criminal law process has been set in motion in respect of the incident as required under appropriate sections of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
3. The status of the police enquiry on the incident.
4. The status of action taken against the responsible officers/officials in the incident.
The Chief Secretary, Govt. of Gujrat shall also specifically inform the Commission the steps and measures taken by them on the following directives issued by the Commission in the form of an Advisory dated 24.9.2021 on the subject “Advisory on Protection of Human Rights of the Persons Engaged in Hazardous Cleaning”.
1. Ensuring proper protective gear/safety equipment for sanitary workers:
i. All sanitary workers entering/ cleaning septic tanks/ sewer lines must be provided with helmet, safety jacket, gloves, mask, gumboots, safety eyeglasses, torchlight along with oxygen cylinder. Employers to ensure that no body part of the sanitary worker remains exposed while undertaking hazardous cleaning.
ii. It should be the responsibility of the local authority/ hiring agency to provide all necessary personal protective gear/safety equipment to the sanitary workers irrespective of their type of employment, i.e., permanent, temporary, part-time or contractually hired/engaged.
2. Leveraging the use of suitable and worker-friendly technology and robotic machines:
i. The States/ UTs and local bodies need to invest adequately for use of the latest technology and totally mechanize the cleaning of septic tanks, sewer lines or sewage treatment plants, etc.
ii. Use of duly acknowledged and recognized technological equipment e.g. Bandicoot, Sewer Crocs, KAMJET GR, Mobile septage Treatment Unit (MTU), etc., be encouraged by all stakeholders.
3. Welfare schemes: responsibility and accountability of the hiring agency/employer:
i. The State Government(s)/local bodies should engage sanitary workers formally as required. Only trained workers should be engaged in carrying out hazardous cleaning work. Training program for this may be undertaken, and certificate be provided.
ii. The hiring authority/employer must ensure that all sanitary workers are covered under the Ayushman Bharat Scheme.
4. Fixing the responsibility and accountability of the concerned authorities:
i. In case of death of any sanitary worker while undertaking hazardous cleaning work, the local authority and the contractor/employer are to be held responsible and accountable, jointly and severally, irrespective of the type of hiring/engagement of the sanitary worker.
ii. Considering the risk and technicalities associated with the cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, the local authorities should exclusively take up the responsibility of getting the work done under their direct supervision. If the said work is to be outsourced, it should be given to only those contrac
tors who fulfil the requisite criteria. However, the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the sanitary workers will primarily remain with the local authority.
5. Rehabilitation:
i. Providing one-time cash assistance and credit support is mandatory in accordance with "The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013" (herein after referred as the Act of 2013). However, this should be in addition to access to the livelihood.
6. Access to Justice
i. The Act of 2013 lays down the offences & penalties in Chapter III (Sec 5 to 9) and the role and functions of the implementing authorities in Chap V. The District Magistrates and the authorized officers under Sec 18 to ensure that persons contravening the provisions of Section 5, 6 & 7 of the Act are investigated & prosecuted as per the mandate of Sec 19. Requisite notification under Sec 18 be issued in case it has not been issued.
ii. The State Government to ensure that a sufficient number of Inspectors are appointed as per Sec. 20 of the Act of 2013.
iii. The District Magistrates/ notified Executive Magistrates to ensure expeditious trial of offences in accordance with the provisions ofthe Act of 2013.
iv. As per directive of the Supreme Court in Safai Karamchari Andolan & Ors v. Uol & Ors., WP (Civil) 583/2003, 27th March 2014, entering sewer lines without safety gears be made a crime even in emergency situations.
v. In case of death of such worker, police to promptly register FIR without fail, investigate and take action against the offenders under relevant sections of IPC and for violation of any other law in force.
vi. As held by the Supreme Court in Safai Karamchari Andolan (supra), the families of all persons who have died in sewerage work (manholes, septic tanks, etc.) since 1993 to be identified and awarded compensation of Rs.10 lakhs for each such death to the family members in accordance with the law, and the concerned authority should be held accountable in case of failure on their part in compliance of the same.
vii. Any other crime such as threat, inducement, criminal intimidation, bonded labour, or atrocity under the SC/ ST Act in respect of such work, FIR be registered and investigated in a time bound manner.
viii. A suitable scheme be formulated for providing compensation to the family of victim in the event of accidental death/ injuries that occurs due to fall in potholes/ open manholes/ sewer /septic tanks, etc.
7. Strengthening infrastructure for providing sanitary services:
i. In pursuance of the ODF++ protocol, the necessary steps be taken to ensure that faecal sludge/ septage and sewage is safely managed and treated, with no discharging and/or dumping of untreated faecal sludge/ septage and sewage in drains, water bodies or open areas.

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