The scope of constitutional morality

Abolition of untouchability in all its forms, including scavenging, remains an unrealised constitutional right
“The issue of the rights of sweepers and scavengers has never entered the mainstream legal consciousness in the country,” wrote Upendra Baxi in Law and Poverty: Critical Essays . “Nor have the Bar and the Bench, and the mushrooming legal aid and advice programmes shown any awareness of the exploitative conditions of work imposed upon the scavengers and sweepers under the employment of municipal corporations or related local bodies… [T]he exploitative conditions of work constitute governmental defiance of the law and the Constitution, which can be best summed up as a crucial component of overall governmental lawlessness in the country since Independence.”
Written in 1988, Prof. Baxi’s lines remain disconcertingly relevant today. We struggle against the caricaturing of this extremely stigmatising, violently exploitative and degrading form of forced labour by a government and civil society that showcases empty rhetoric and ceremony around “cleanliness”, while decimating an entire class of citizens through callous neglect with impunity. There has been a steady rise in deaths of conservancy workers, and a steadier normalisation of the risks to life they bear on a daily basis. Why don’t sewer deaths bring the country to a grinding halt, as they should? Will a general strike of all conservancy workers across the country bring the country to its knees? Because then, it will not be a question of prime-time jingles on a clean India; the focus will shift on each of us to take the moral and physical responsibility of cleaning our own sewers and keeping ourselves free of the risk of toxic death.
Principle of non-retrogression
Important for citizen consideration today is the fact that the Supreme Court, in deciding on the unconstitutionality of Section 377, recognised that the four corners of the Constitution rest on a social reality steeped in prejudice, stereotypes, parochialism, bigotry, social exclusion, and segregation. If decriminalising “unnatural” sex is one of the “necessary steps on the road to democracy”, abolition of untouchability in all its forms remains an unrealised constitutional right. The lesson on the importance of intersections in constitutional reasoning today is brought home to us in this case in yet another way. There is recognition by the court that majoritarian governments/sections work hard to keep oppressive structures in place, and that it is the duty of the court to place questions of liberty, equality, and dignity out of the reach of majoritarian impulses. The sanction for manual scavenging lies at the heart of majoritarian mindsets and structures. It is part of an ideological framework that permeates the institutional apparatus of government. If, as Justice Misra observes, “the sustenance of fundamental rights does not require majoritarian sanction”, can we call for some constitutional-procedural deliberation on the “progressive realisation of rights” in this instance? The principle of non-retrogression in the matter of fundamental rights has now been unequivocally stated. But on our streets, we only observe it in the breach especially in the case of manual scavengers. To end with Ambedkar: “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.”
Kalpana Kannabiran is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad

Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/the-scope-of-constitutional-morality/article25117044.ece

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