The Supreme Court of India has raised concerns over the imposition of additional fees by some states for the collection of sanitary waste. In a plea challenging these charges, the Court highlighted the potential financial burden on the poor, marginalized, middle-class, and school-going children due to the said collection of fees.

The Bench of Justice Surya Kant and Justice Ujjal Bhuyan was hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Advocate Indu Varma alleging that many states in India are refusing to collect sanitary waste from households, thereby discriminating against women, children, the ailing, and the elderly. It highlighted that this is not only hindering women's empowerment, education, and careers; it has far-reaching social consequences.

At the outset, Advocate Indu Varma, the petitioner-in-person, informed the Bench that, as per the reply filed by the Union of India, the State of Goa is also charging Rs. 18 per kg for sanitary waste. "Apart from the user fee, they are charging for the Sanitary waste as well. The state of Meghalaya also seems to be charging for sanitary waste separately," she submitted

Varma contended that she is challenging the "user fee" as well, as it applies commonly for the entire country. She submitted, "Our country has a lot of people who cannot afford to eat food, so it is very important that there be some distinction in the user fee being charged. It cannot be a common user fee that is being charged for all the people."

She submitted that only five states have filed counter in the matter. The Petitioner-in-person also contended that the Kochi Municipal Corporation in Kerala has still not filed its response in the PIL. "They are the ones from whom I got to know that they are charging separately for sanitary waste," she contended.

Taking note of the submissions, Justice Surya Kant remarked, "I think we need to understand the sensitivity of the question, which the petitioner has raised."

The Senior Advocate Jaideep Gupta appearing for the State of Kerala submitted, "Certainly, but prima facie, there is legal backing for this. A statutory backing for this." He requested the Court not pass any interim or ad-interim order, staying the collection of separate charges for sanitary waste.

The Court expressed its desire to pass ad-interim directions, not today but on the next hearing after a few weeks.

"This is an issue, it is a very grave issue. How the poor, marginalised, even middle-class, school going children, how will they be able to afford these charges? We need to have a pragmatic approach on this issue," Justice Surya Kant remarked. He further stated that sanitary waste can be segregated from all the other kinds of waste.

"Sanitary pads can be separated from all other kinds of waste and on that, we won't like that any state should be allowed to levy any kind of director or indirect charge", Justice Kant said.

"If it is happening with the backup of the Central Government rules, then you immediately have to revisit and a suitable decision will have to be taken," the Court said. The Court added that it wants to pass a comprehensive order.

Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Union of India, contended that the charges are levied from the institutions that generate the waste. The Court asked what is the case when waste is collected from individuals. The ASG responded that it is a feature only in a few states. She added that Solid Waste Management Rules gets its mandate from the Constitution.

The Court clarified that is not on the levy on general waste collection, but only on sanitary waste.

The Petitioner contended that engaging a private contractor to collect sanitary waste is a violation of right to privacy. The State of Kerala opposed the said submission.

The Court said that it does not want to pass any omnibus order. The Court asked the Petitioner to identify which states are charging separately for sanitary waste and identify the categories of people like children, marginalised etc. who need to be exempted.

Considering the submissions, the Court said, "For the purpose of enabling us to pass some order identify states charging separately for sanitary waste."

The petitioner agreed to identify the States; for now, she informed the Court that the States of Kerala, Goa, Meghalaya, and Assam are charging an additional fee for sanitary waste.

"The States of Goa, Chattisgarh, Kerala, Tripura, Assam and Punjab have filed their affidavits. Counsel for the State of Madhya Pradesh filed its affidavit yesterday...Last opportunity is given to the other States to do the needful in two weeks. Post the matter on a non-miscellaneous day," the Court ordered.

Accordingly, the Court scheduled the matter for further hearing on September 3.

Pertinently, on the last hearing in May, the Court had expressed shock that Kochi Municipal Corporation in Kerala is charging an additional fee for collecting sanitary waste, including used sanitary napkins, adult diapers, etc., from its residents.

On March 11, the Court had issued notice in the PIL. The PIL stated, "The State of Kerala has imposed a disposal fee on sanitary waste apart from a user fee for the collection of waste from household, door to door, under Solid Waste Management Rule, 2016."

It highlighted that in the long run it may lead to increase in female infanticide, an issue India has been battling since many years. "The women, children, ailing and elderly are being forced to call third party agency/corporate contracted by the local bodies to dispose of their sanitary waste. The city of Kochi, Kerala State is imposing cost for disposal of sanitary waste since month of April 2023. Initially it was set at 45 rupees plus GST, but has been brought down after grievance was raised, to Rs. 12 per kg since June 2023. This is burdening the families, especially young ·and adult menstruating women thereby impacting their development," the plea read.

The plea stated that the societal fabric of the State of Kerala, being largely matriarchal, will also be impacted if such an imposition is allowed to continue. "The issue of sanitary waste not being collected is widespread in many parts of India. The "user fee" imposed upon residents, Indian households is in violation residents' fundamental right. This is not only discriminatory, affecting the right to live with dignity, sanitation but is also causing severe ecocide. Hence, it needs urgent attention," the plea read.

Cause Title: Indu Varma v. Union of India [W.P.(C) No. 1062/2023]