- Manual scavengers are trapped in a caste embrace, the court said
- The petitioner had challenged conditions preset by the DJB
- Manual scavenging caused over 300 deaths in 2017
New Delhi: “Our society has marginalised manual scavengers to its darkest corners” and these people remain “unseen and forgotten” for generations, the Delhi High Court has said. The observation was made by a bench of Justices S Ravindra Bhat and A K Chawla while dismissing a petition challenging the eligibility conditions and preferences prescribed by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) in the March 2018 tender calling for bids for mechanised sewer cleaning and its transportation.
Expressing hope that DJB’s scheme to mechanise sewer cleaning would eradicate this practice and lead to a “positive tomorrow” for those involved in scavenging.
“Unseen and forgotten for generations, our society has marginalised manual scavengers to its darkest corners. They are trapped in an eternal caste embrace, with no voice in the society or in any meaningful participation; their children are doomed to the same stereotypical roles assigned to them. The promise of equality, dignity and egalitarianism has eluded them altogether in the march and progress witnessed by the rest of our citizens. The present project, through the DJB’s impugned tender, promises a positive tomorrow to a significant number of these individuals; the Central Government’s funding of this project, is an important move — away from largely reservation dominated affirmative policy paradigm witnessed so far,” the bench said.
The DJB is responsible for treatment and disposal of waste-water which it goes through a network of about 7,000 kms of sewage lines across Delhi. In its tender, the DJB had stated that in awarding of bids, the Board would give preference to the dependents of those who were performing manual scavenging tasks, those who are performing such duties themselves (regardless of their community) and those who belong to the SC/ST communities.
The petition filed by M/s Metro Waste Handling, which provides solid waste management services and mechanised sewer cleaning services to DJB, had objected to this preference saying it would be abused and the entire process of selection of bidders would be opaque. The court, however, said, “The object of such preference is plainly to enable the meaningful participation of the most marginalised section, that is workers involved in manual scavenging, and scheduled caste/scheduled tribe communities (who are so chosen, having regard to what the Constitution framers stated as a backward section of the Hindu community who were handicapped by the practice of untouchability”). The state, that is DJB, in our opinion, had a compelling interest in promoting the welfare of these class of citizens, while conceiving and implementing this system of preferences, in the impugned NIT (tender).”
The petitioner had also challenged the condition of awarding only one vehicle under the tender to each bidder, asserting that this would render redundant its acquired infrastructure and investments made, and would also impact its 600 employees.
The DJB, however, contended that the conditions prescribed aimed to eliminate the risks involved in manual scavenging when undertaken by the “disorganised individual sector”. It had also said it was attempting to employ the largest number of people in small units. The court, while praising the DJB project, said, “One hopes that this move is part of a string of other plans and programmes aimed at achieving the objective of elimination of untouchability and the practice of human manual scavenging; it can well become a significant brick in the building of a strong edifice of substantive equality and to recall Ambedkar’s phrase, hopefully bring about ‘the principle of one man one value’ to all. In view of the discussion and reasoning, the writ petition is dismissed as meritless, but without order on costs.