Gujarat High Court Criticises State Government Over FIR Against Sanitation Worker

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Gujarat High Court Criticises State Government Over FIR Against Sanitation Worker

| Updated: April 5, 2024 20:49

The Gujarat High Court on Friday criticised the state government for lodging an FIR against a contractual sanitation worker for “wilfully” entering a tank, despite a prohibition on manual scavenging. The court noted that such responsibility cannot be placed on the worker, who is only resorting to such work to feed his family.

The observation was made by a division bench of Chief Justice Sunita Agarwal and Justice Aniruddha Mayee during a hearing on a public interest litigation filed by Ahmedabad-based NGO Manav Garima. The NGO is seeking strict implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

In November 2023, a sanitation worker died and another suffered serious injuries while cleaning a sewage tank on the Bhavnagar campus of Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI). The court had earlier directed the state government to conduct an inquiry into the incident and submit a report detailing the actions taken and proposed.

On Friday, the government counsel informed the court that the Bhavnagar Municipal Corporation (BMC) had not deployed a supervisor at the site of the incident, despite it being mandatory. The committee suggested a departmental inquiry against the BMC executive engineer and recommended the appointment of nodal officers from corporations for frequent and regular investigations and audits of sewage tank cleaning works.

However, the suggestion did not impress the bench. Chief Justice Agarwal remarked, “There is lacuna and slackness on part of the corporation… It says the supervisor of the corporation never remains present. There should be a nodal officer of the corporation. So who will make the inquiry? Corporation? For their own faults?”

The committee also found major lapses on the part of CSMCRI and recommended compensation of Rs 30 lakh to be paid to the heirs of the deceased. The court has sought a personal affidavit from the principal secretary of the urban development and urban housing department with details of the action taken after the inquiry report findings.

Additionally, the committee recommended action against the surviving sanitation worker, Sureshbhai Garaniya, for “wilfully entering the tank” in the absence of the civic body team. However, Chief Justice Agarwal remarked, “Please don’t put this responsibility on the worker. He is only concerned about the money he gets; he is a contract worker. He knows he will not be able to feed his family if he is not doing those things that he was asked to do… He needs money so he is doing it. You cannot let it happen.”

The Gujarat High Court, while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) concerning non-payment of compensation to the kin of those who died during manual scavenging between 1993 and 2014, emphasised the vicarious liability of the civic body to compensate.

In one such incident from Anand, the government had earlier pointed out that the kin were not paid as the deceased had not died due to inhalation of hazardous gases but because he had been buried under the sand during construction of a sewage pipeline. The court had sought a response from the Anand municipality in this regard.

On Friday, the municipality’s counsel reiterated before the court that the said incident was not a case of manual scavenging but rather a death during the construction work of a new sewage line. The contractor subsequently paid the family Rs 1.85 lakh in compensation.

However, the bench, led by Chief Justice Sunita Agarwal, stressed on the civic body’s vicarious liability to compensate as well. She remarked, “Why would you not compensate him? You are the municipality, you were the principal employer, you engaged the contractor, you cannot refuse to compensate him…For any mishap, any issue pertaining to people engaged by the contractor, the principal employer is equally liable. For any lapse of the contractor, you are vicariously liable…You have to pay in addition to what the contractor has paid.”

The court’s remarks underscore the responsibility of principal employers in ensuring the safety and welfare of all workers, including those engaged by contractors.

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