Madras High Court has reprimanded a Dailt couple, who had accused their employers of forcefully engaging them in manual scavenging, for “unnecessarily wasting the court’s precious time”. The Madurai Bench asked the couple to pay a fine of Rs 25,000. The Court’s ruling has left the couple devastated as they are already struggling with finances after losing their jobs.
Back in July 2017, the Dalit couple, employed as sanitation workers at Anna University, alleged in a video that the Dean Chitra Selvi forced workers to perform manual scavenging with no protective gear, to perform personal chores in her private residence (including washing her and her husband’s underwear and cleaning their home’s toilets), and that she allowed her husband to sexual harass them.
Speaking to TNM at the time, the woman had said, “All the problems started after this new dean, Chitra Selvi, took over two years ago. She would make us go to her house and work by turn. At times, we were also asked to go and work in her mother’s house in Karur. In the last one year, her husband started harassing me sexually. When there was no one else in the house, he’d ask me to go and get his underwear and towel while he was taking a bath.”
Activist Divya Bharathi, who shot the controversial video, faced violent opposition for having posted the video. She had to flee Tamil Nadu because she began receiving multiple threats. Moreover, she was branded as being against the Pallar community, that Selvi belongs to.
Here’s what the High Court said
The order issued Madurai Bench of Madras High Court seemingly favours the Varsity’s dean which is evident by the tone of the judgement.
“”Similarly, when a sweeper/scavenger is employed, he/she has to clean up the toilet also, because she was appointed for washing the clothes of all the family members for which she has been paid therefor. Hence, being a domestic maid appointed as Sweeper and Cleaner, she has to wash all the clothes irrespective of the clothes, whether it is inner cloth or outer cloth. Similarly, a sweeper cannot complain that she cannot be compelled to clean up the toilet, therefore, making a complaint that the scavenger was compelled to clean up the toilet, is wholly unacceptable.”.
Why Court’s Judgement is problematic
Court’s usage of words ‘scavenger’ and ‘sweeper’ in similar vein is itself problematic. There’s no situation of employment where manual scavenging is legal, regardless of whether they were employed by Selvi or the university itself.
Court’s observation that the couple was duty-bound to clean toilets contravenes the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Moreover, the couple had not given their consent to clean toilets.
The couple worked as contract workers under the job title of ‘Sweeper’, they had taken up employment on the understanding that they would be working at the college campus.
Speaking to The News Minute, the devastated husband said, “The court has not dealt with any of our grievances. We are living in hiding even today because we have a death threat hanging over our heads if we venture out. Our sons are not going to school because we no longer have any money left to pay. Our livelihoods have been destroyed because we refused to put up with harassment.”