The IIT-Madras invention that could put an end to manual scavenging in India

An IIT-Madras start-up has developed a robotic machine to clean septic tanks and hopes to end the dehumanising pratice of manual scavenging in India. Around 10 units have been distributed in Tamil Nadu, which reported the highest number of deaths of workers cleaning sewers over the last three years

The IIT-Madras invention that could put an end to manual scavenging in India

Manual scavenging was banned in India in 2013. The dangerous practice has claimed more than 900 lives since 1993. AFP

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras has developed a robot with the aim to eliminate manual scavenging in India. Around 10 units will be deployed across Tamil Nadu and the plan is to put them to use in Gujarat and Maharashtra next.

The invention will be a game-changer as the machines will be used to clean toxic septic tanks.

“The septic tank is a poisonous environment, filled with semi-solid and semi-fluid human faecal material that make up about two-thirds of the tank,” said Prabhu Rajagopal, professor, department of mechanical engineering, IIT Madras.

“Hundreds of deaths are reported every year across India, due to manual scavenging in septic tanks despite bans and prohibitory orders,” he added.

What is manual scavenging?

Manual scavenging is the practice of physically removing human excreta by hand from sewers or septic tanks in the country. The work is often undertaken by India’s poor and marginalised communities.

The practice was banned in India under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR). The Act prohibits the use of any individual for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta until its disposal. It says that manual scavenging is a “dehumanising practice”.

The 2013 Act also broadened the definition of manual scavenging to include people employed to clean septic tanks, ditches, or railway tracks.

Is the practice still prevalent in India?

Yes. The dangerous practice has claimed more than 900 lives since 1993.

In April 2022, the Centre said that there have been no manual scavenging deaths in the country but 161 workers died cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the last three years. Tamil Nadu reported the highest number of such deaths at 27 followed by 26 in Uttar Pradesh, according to government data.

Incidents of lives lost while cleaning drains continue.

Last year, activist Bezwada Wilson from the Safai Karmachari Andolan, said that 472 deaths because of manual scavenging had been recorded from 2016 to 2020.

What changes will the IIT-Madras robot bring?

According to the IIT-Madras professor, the robot named “HomoSEP” can homogenise the hard sludge in septic tanks through a custom-developed rotary blade mechanism and pump the slurry using an integrated suction mechanism.

“Sanitation workers will be able to operate the HomoSEP on their own, after being provided with relevant training and appropriate guidance along with necessary safety measures, both of which our team is working on right now,” he said.

“Safety plays a vital role in this whole procedure, starting with the design of HomoSEP itself,” he added.

Who are the brains behind HomoSEP?

The device was first developed as a final year Masters’ project by Divanshu Kumar under the guidance of Rajagopal and showcased at the IIT-Madras Carbon Zerp Challenge 2019, after receiving seed support from IIT Madras’ Socially Relevant Projects initiative.

Despite pandemic-related difficulties over the next couple of years, the researchers collaborated with an IIT Madras-incubated start-up Solinas Integrity Private Limited (now headed by Kumar) to further develop the robot.

GAIL (India), a government-owned natural gas explorer, further supported product development and French multinational Capgemini backed efforts towards miniaturisation and portability of the robot, through their CSR initiatives, reports news agency PTI.

What’s the cost of the machine?

The machine costs around Rs 20 lakh but has been made available to workers by non-profits.

At present, the first two HomoSEP units have been distributed to self-help groups led by Nagamma and Ruth Mary, whose husbands died tragically during sanitation work, through the support of the NGO, Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA).

The team of researchers is also working on a compact model. Kumar told NDTV, “In the current compact version we are imagining that the de-sludging system, suction as well as storage tank all can be fitted in one vehicle itself, that will make it very modular to take it to faraway places.”

What are sanitation workers saying?

Deepthi Sukumar, the national core team member of the SKA, said, “SKA, a movement against manual scavenging, has been campaigning for the mechanisation of all sewerage work. This is history in the making as Nagamma, a widow of a person who died in a septic tank, becomes the owner and an entrepreneur of mechanised septic tank cleaning services.”.

“This enterprise will focus on changing lives of sanitation worker communities with dignified livelihoods providing mechanised sanitation solutions to stop manual scavenging deaths and will engage with IIT-Madras for their technical expertise and support,” she added.

With inputs from agencies

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