Supreme Court Judgement on Scavengers

We give below some extracts from the Supreme Court judgment dated 12.07.2011 on the issue of scavengers working under the Delhi Jal Board (Civil appeal No 5322 of 2011), which are self explanatory

This appeal filed by Delhi Jal Board for setting aside an interlocutory order passed by the Division Bench of the Delhi High Court whereby it has been directed to deposit Rs.79,000/- with Delhi High Court Legal Services Committee in addition to Rs.1.71 lacs already paid to the families of the deceased worker, namely, Rajan is one of the several thousand cases filed by the State and/or its agencies/ instrumentalities to challenge the orders passed by the High Courts for ensuring that the goal of justice set out in the preamble to the Constitution of India is fulfilled, at least in some measure, for the disadvantaged sections of the society who have been deprived of fundamental rights to equality, life and liberty for last more than 6 decades.

The appeal is also illustrative of how the State apparatus is insensitive to the safety and well being of those who are, on account of sheer poverty, compelled to work under most unfavourable conditions and regularly face the threat of being deprived of their life’.

The laws enacted by Parliament and State legislatures provide for payment of compensation to the legal representatives of those killed in air, rail or motor accident. The legal representatives of a workman, who dies while on duty in a factory/industry/establishment, get a certain amount of compensation. Even those who are killed in police action get compensation in the form of ex-gratia announced by the political apparatus of the State.

However, neither the law makers nor those who have been entrusted with the duty of implementing the laws enacted for welfare of the unorganised workers have put in place appropriate mechanism for protection of persons employed by or through the contractors to whom services meant to benefit the public at large are outsourced by the State and/or its agencies/instrumentalities like the appellant for doing works, which are inherently hazardous and dangerous to life nor made provision for payment of reasonable compensation in the event of death’ ….

In the light of the arguments made by the learned counsel, the following three questions arise for our consideration:

1. Whether the High Court was justified in entertaining the writ petition filed by respondent No.1 by way of public interest litigation for compelling the respondents to take effective measures for safety of sewage workers and ordering payment of compensation to the families of the victims of accidents taking place during sewage operations.

2. Whether the directions given by the High Court amount to usurpation of the legislative power of the State, and

3. Whether the High Court was entitled to issue interim direction for payment of compensation to the families of deceased workers.

Re: Question No.1:

‘At the threshold, we deem it necessary to erase the impression and misgivings of some people that by entertaining petitions filed by social action groups /activists/workers and NGOs for espousing the cause of those who, on account of poverty, illiteracy and/or ignorance and similar other handicaps, cannot seek protection and vindication of their constitutional and/or legal rights and silently suffer due to actions and/or omissions of the State apparatus and/or agencies /instrumentalities of the State or even private individuals, the superior Courts exceed the unwritten boundaries of their jurisdictions. When the Constitution of India was adopted, the people of this country resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Democratic Republic. They also resolved to secure to all its citizens justice, social, economic and political; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.

‘For achieving the goals set out in the preamble, the framers of the Constitution identified and recognised certain basic rights of the citizens and individuals and pooled them in Part III, which has the title `Fundamental Rights’ and simultaneously incorporated Directive Principles of State Policy which, though not enforceable by any Court are fundamental in governance of the country and the State is under obligation to comply with the principles embodied in Part-IV in making laws. Article 38, which was renumbered as Clause (1) thereof by the Constitution (Forty-fourth Amendment) Act, 1978 declares that the State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life. Clause (2) of this Article, which was inserted by the same Amending Act, declares that State shall, in particular, strive to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals, but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations. Article 39(e) mandates that the State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength. Article 39A which was inserted by the Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976 lays down that the State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities. Article 42 enjoins the State to make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief’

‘In last 63 years, Parliament and State Legislatures have enacted several laws for achieving the goals set out in the preamble but their implementation has been extremely inadequate and tardy and benefit of welfare measures enshrined in those legislations has not reached millions of poor, downtrodden and disadvantaged sections of the society and the efforts to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots have not yield the desired result. The most unfortunate part of the scenario is that whenever one of the three constituents of the State i.e., judiciary, has issued directions for ensuring that the right to equality, life and liberty no longer remains illusory for those who suffer from the handicaps of poverty, illiteracy and ignorance and directions are given for implementation of the laws enacted by the legislature for the benefit of the have-nots, a theoretical debate is started by raising the bogey of judicial activism or judicial overreach and the orders issued for benefit of the weaker sections of the society are invariably subjected to challenge in the higher Courts. In large number of cases, the sole object of this litigative exercise is to tire out those who genuinely espouse the cause of the weak and poor. …

Re: Question No.2:

In view of the principles laid down in the aforesaid judgments, we do not have any slightest hesitation to reject the argument that by issuing the directions, the High Court has assumed the legislative power of the State. What the High Court has done is nothing except to ensure that those employed/engaged for doing work which is inherently hazardous and dangerous to life are provided with life saving equipments and the employer takes care of their safety and health. The State and its agencies/instrumentalities cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to put in place effective mechanism for ensuring safety of the workers employed for maintaining and cleaning the sewage system. The human beings who are employed for doing the work in the sewers cannot be treated as mechanical robots, who may not be affected by poisonous gases in the manholes. The State and its agencies /instrumentalities or the contractors engaged by them are under a constitutional obligation to ensure the safety of the persons who are asked to undertake hazardous jobs. The argument of choice and contractual freedom is not available to the appellant and the like for contesting the issues raised by respondent No.1.

….. Re: Question No.3:

‘In view of the law laid down in the afore-mentioned judgments, the appellant’s challenge to the interim directions given by the High Court for payment of compensation to the families of the workers deserves to be rejected. However, that is not the end of the matter. We feel that the High Court should have taken cue from the judgment in Chairman, Railway Board v. Chandrima Das (supra) and awarded compensation which could be treated as reasonable. Though, it is not possible to draw any parallel between the trauma suffered by a victim of rape and the family of a person who dies due to the negligence of others, but the High Court could have taken note of the fact that this Court had approved the award of compensation of Rs.10 lacs in 1998 to the victim of rape as also increase in the cost of living and done well to award compensation of atleast Rs.5 lacs to the families of those who died due to negligence of the public authority like the appellant who did not take effective measures for ensuring safety of the sewage workers. We may have remitted the case to the High Court for passing appropriate order for payment of enhanced compensation but keeping in view the fact that further delay would add to the miseries of the family of the victim, we deem it proper to exercise power under Article 142 of the Constitution and direct the appellant to pay a sum of Rs.3.29 lakhs to the family of the victim through Delhi High Court State Legal Services Committee. This would be in addition to Rs.1.71 lakhs already paid by the contractor’

‘In the result, the appeal is dismissed subject to the aforesaid direction regarding the amount of compensation to be paid by the appellant. It is needless to say that the appellant shall be entitled to recover the additional amount from the contractor. Respondent No.1 shall also be entitled to file appropriate application before the High Court for payment of enhanced compensation to the families of other victims and we have no doubt that the High Court will entertain such request.