The courtroom was jam-packed. The defense lawyer was cross-examining the wife of the deceased. The wife told him that her deceased husband was a manhole worker, and he used to check the oxygen level inside the manhole by flinging a pebble – if any bug or cockroach emerged alive from the manhole, then it used to be a green signal that the manhole was safe to enter. She added that thereupon he would enter the manhole, bare bodied after having consumed liquor (to bear the suffocating stink). The judge sat like a tape-recorder; just responding to objections every now and then. The case of the public prosecutor was that the deceased had committed suicide, and ridiculously, the judge was finding it too onerous a case to decide prima facie.
This is a sequence from a Marathi film called Court (which was India’s entry to the Oscar in 2015). One might argue that this was fiction and a judge cannot be that naive in real life. Fair enough! Nonetheless, the apathy and ignorance of the legal fraternity – judges and lawyers much alike – in real life is very much close to what has been shown in the film.
To illustrate this, when I was working on an article on the Prohibition of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, and I desperately needed a bare act for perusal (I mostly prefer a hard copy to a soft one, anyway). I approached the law bookshops that were situated on the court premises. I went through the catalogue of bare acts of various publishers. Much to my shock, none of the publishers had published the bare act of the 2013 act! None of the law bookshop owners had ever heard of the act. Even the lawyers did not know about it. I had to repeat the name several times so that they could comprehend it. Thereupon, someone told me to inquire from the court library meant for lawyers. Guess what? Even the librarian who was an old, experienced man had not heard of anything like that. Albeit, he rummaged through the Official Gazette of the year 2013. Finally, my tiring quest came to an end.
Come to think of it, the legal professionals are not solely to blame. The foundation of the thinking as to which law subjects are to be preferred gets ingrained in the law schools itself. Keeping aside the mandatory basic law subjects, the commercial laws are the most sought after. The manual scavenging act is not even in the optional subjects. In fact, it is not there in the curriculum at all! Then again, one might argue that a mention of the 1993 and the 2013 Acts during the discussion on Article 17 (Abolition of untouchability); especially, under the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court: Safai Karamchari vs Union of India (2014SC). The fallacy of the argument lies in the fact that “mention” is only an allusion, incidentally made while discussing the main topic of untouchability. Amusingly, the policy of reservation gets undue attention under the right to equality debate, and bears the brunt of the wrath of the so-called debaters! Anyway, it is an open secret now that manual scavenging is much more than the heinous practice of untouchability. Manual scavenging has a co-relation with the structural framework of not just the caste hierarchy, but also the class (i.e. social relations of production) and the gender. Equating untouchability with manual scavenging is a great injustice, if not foolish!
Comparing the hazardous and the morbid nature of manual scavenging (particularly, of sewer cleaning), the exclusion of the Act even in the curriculum of law schools is a matter of grave concern. After all, the law students are the future lawyers and judges.
We must keep in mind, had the lawyer who gave us the constitution that we so readily devour before the exams been alive today, he would have been so dismayed to see his fraternity’s indifference and apathy to the exploitation of his people.