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New Delhi:

Observing that caste discrimination continues to exist in society and criticising the deaths of people while involved in cleaning places like manholes and drains, the Supreme Court on Wednesday pulled up the Centre and state governments for not providing protective gear to such workers.

The court’s remarks came while hearing the Centre’s plea seeking the recall of a 2018 judgment which virtually diluted the stringent provisions of immediate arrest and no anticipatory bail for the accused on a complaint filed under the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

A three-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra criticised the governments and said that caste discrimination, unfortunately, continues to prevail in society even after 70 years of Independence.

Expressing concern on the issue, the apex court said that nowhere else in the world are people sent to die into gas chambers, referring to the recent deaths in different municipalities of cleaners who had descended for cleaning blocked sewer drains.

The bench also said that it is the “most uncivilised and inhuman situation where people involved in manual scavenging are dying every day and no protective gears are provided to them and no action is taken against the authorities.”

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal said that no law of tort, which deals with civil wrong and its liabilities thereof, has been developed in the country.

The court also noted that there is no law of tort being practised in India.

“What have you done for manual scavenging? In no other country, people enter manholes without protective gears. What have you done about it?” the bench asked.

He also pointed out that untouchability is still being practised as no one shakes hands or wants to be with the people involved in such kind of cleaning activities.

“Untouchability was abolished in law but this is a question to everyone, do you even shake hands with manual scavengers,” the court asked.

“All humans are equal, and when they are equal you should provide them equal opportunities,” the court said, adding that the governments are not even providing such workers with an equal chance and basic facilities to clean themselves.

The bench, meanwhile, reserved order on the Centre’s plea seeking recall of its 2018 judgment, the case it was hearing originally.

The apex court also asked the parties to submit their written submissions and said that the batch of petitions challenging the Amendment to the Act will be heard separately, next week.

The Supreme Court on Friday had referred the Centre’s plea on the 2018 judgment to a larger bench. The Centre had stated that the judgment diluting the stringent provision of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act had “seriously affected the morale of these communities and the confidence in the ability of the state to protect them”.

The apex court in its March 20 judgement had said: “…in absence of any other independent offence calling for arrest, in respect of offences under the Atrocities Act, no arrest may be effected without the permission of appointing authority in case of public servant or that of Senior Superintendent of Police in case of general public”.

The court had said it was providing the safeguard “in view of acknowledged abuse of law of arrest” under the Act.

“It’s necessary to express concern that working of the Atrocities Act should not result in perpetuating casteism, which can have an adverse impact on the integration of the society and the constitutional values,” it said.

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