Gujarat HC pulls up state for FIR against sanitation worker for ‘wilfully’ entering septic tank

The Gujarat High Court on Friday reprimanded the state government for filing a first information report against a contractual sanitation worker for “deliberately” entering a septic tank despite a ban on manual flushing, Live Law reported on Saturday.

A division bench of Chief Justice Sunita Agarwal and Justice Aniruddha Mayee was hearing a public interest litigation filed by Ahmedabad-based NGO Manav Garima seeking strict implementation of the ban on employment as manual scavengers and its Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

Manual scavenging – the process of manually removing human waste from sewers or septic tanks – is prohibited by law, but the practice remains widespread in several parts of the country.

A sanitation worker died and another sustained serious injuries while cleaning a septic tank at the Bhavnagar campus of the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute in November. The state had charged the surviving worker with illegal and “intentional” entry into the septic tank.

The state government had conducted an inquiry into the incident on behalf of the court and submitted a report outlining the measures taken and proposed measures.

On Friday, the government informed the court of the findings of the probe and said that despite the duty, the Bhavnagar Municipal Corporation did not appoint a warden at the site of the incident.

The committee recommended action against the surviving sanitation worker for “deliberately” entering the tank in the absence of the civic team despite several warnings from the civic body officials, The Indian Express reported. The committee also described him as a “regulatory offender”.

“Please do not shift this responsibility to the employee,” the court said. “He only cares about the money he gets; he is a contract worker. He knows he won't be able to support his family if he doesn't do the things he's been asked to do. He needs money, so he does it. You can’t let that happen.”

Live Law reported that the judges also asked the civic body why they would not compensate the worker.

“You are the municipality, you were the primary employer, you hired the contractor,” the court said. “You cannot refuse to compensate him. The main employer is equally liable for any accidents or problems in connection with the persons engaged by the contractor.”

The judges said the authority was liable for any failure by the contractor.

“The liability of the employer and the contractor is vicarious,” the court said. “For this reason, the Contract Labor Law states that if the contractor fails to pay, the primary employer is liable to pay. You have to pay in addition to what the contractor paid.”

The committee set up by the state also noted that while the civic body has appointed a nodal officer, it has neither supervised the work nor appointed a supervisor for supervision. The committee also suggested an intra-departmental inquiry against the executive engineer of Bhavnagar Municipal Corporation.

The court said the recommendations showed that a section of the citizenry was negligent.

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