Sachin Yadav, a 42-year-old sanitation worker from Chembur employed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for 14 years, claims to have been given a new life. Yadav, whose previous job was to climb into manholes and sewer lines every day to clean and unclog them himself, now operates a robot that does the dirty work for him.

“It is like a blessing given to me, I no longer have to go inside the manhole. The robot is very easy to operate and does more work in a day than we could before,” said Yadav. His family would be constantly worried about his health and safety in the years that he worked as a manual scavenger. Two robots were deployed six months ago in the M-west ward of Mumbai where Yadav works.

The ‘Bandicoot’ robot, created by a group of young engineers from Kerala in their company Genrobotics, can clean and unclog both manholes and septic tanks having multiple openings. The 50-kg device does the work of lifting the heavy manhole cover, scooping the solid waste from the sewer with its robotic arm and emptying it into a bucket, allowing for zero human-intervention in cleaning. Bandicoot uses an infrared camera to project the inside of the manhole on the monitor fixed on the external stand; the interface is easy and user-friendly.

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Rashid, the 26-year-old co-founder of Genrobotics, said: “We wanted not only to save the lives of manual scavengers but to rehabilitate them and give them dignified work.” The Genrobotics team trains sanitation workers to operate the robot so that they can retain their jobs with dignity and safety.

Covid-19 risk

“During this dangerous pandemic, I feel all the more blessed that I don’t have to climb into the sewer, I can wear my mask and easily get the work done from a distance,” added Yadav.

Sanitation workers across the nation are working on the frontlines during the pandemic and are highly exposed to all kinds of domestic and hazardous waste. Reports that not all of them receive the ‘luxury’ of protective gear are a cause for alarm.

“We are getting reports from different sites where we have deployed Bandicoot, that workers are seeing a 70 per cent increase in waste due to Covid-19related waste-generation of masks, gloves and other bio-hazardous waste. This is a very serious issue, especially in places where workers still have to manually clean waste,” said Rashid.

Some studies from Italy have shown that traces of coronavirus were present in the sewage water of some cities as early as December 2019. A team of experts with the CovidActionCollab (CAC) is developing a protocol to test sewage for Covid-19 traces in what they feel could be a simple, non-invasive method of community surveillance. Recent Metrowater tests done in Chennai also detected Covid-19 RNA in sewage water samples collected as part of a preliminary study. However, studies show no evidence of Covid-19 transmission through sewage water; yet some pollution control boards have warned their municipal departments.

Occupational hazards

Manual scavenging is defined as the act of manually cleaning human excrement from public streets and dry latrines, cleaning septic tanks, gutters and sewers. This dehumanising practice was banned under the ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act (Manual Scavengers Act) 2013’.

Yet, it is largely prevalent across the country. Over 98 per cent of the people employed in manual scavenging jobs are either women or from Dalit communities, according to Safai Karmachari Andolan, a movement aimed at eradicating manual scavenging. Nearly 370 deaths of sanitation workers have been recorded as a result of manually cleaning sewers in the five years leading up to 2019. The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 recorded over 1.82 lakh families that had at least one member employed as a manual scavenger. There have been discrepancies in formal enumeration, but some studies peg numbers as high as 50 lakh sanitation workers.

A large number of these deaths are caused by asphyxiation from the noxious fumes and gases inside sewers. Data show that 80 per cent of manual scavengers don’t survive till the age of 60, and three sanitation workers die every five days in the country. They are also riddled with various health problems like respiratory illnesses, and skin diseases, besides being stigmatised in society. In a 2019 Supreme Court hearing on manual scavenging, the Court said: “No country sends its people to gas chambers to die.”

Youth on a mission

What started as an affinity of a group of engineering students for robotics, turned into a mission to make each city, town and district in the country manual-scavenging free. “We will not rest until we have deployed ‘Bandicoot’ across the country, making it free from this inhuman practice,” said Rashid.

“What gave us the reason to start this project was a tragedy we read in the newspaper. Three people — two sewage cleaners and an auto-driver who had tried to help them — had died of asphyxiation in a manhole in Kozhikode,” he said.

The project initially faced a common problem faced by start-ups — lack of funding. The group of friends after completing their degree had no alternative but to take up jobs in the corporate sector. The Kerala IT Secretary then decided to help the team and the Kerala Startup Mission and Kerala Finance Corporation pitched in. The Kerala water authority was the first public body that collaborated with Genrobotics to successfully deploy Bandicoot in Thiruvananthapuram.

Genrobotics has collaborated with States like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, covering more than 10 States and around 20 municipal corporations since the launch of the latest version of Bandicoot in 2018.

One robot costs up to ₹32 lakh factoring in overhead expenses, training and maintenance. It can clean up to 10 manholes a day. It requires minimal maintenance and comes with a one-year warranty.

Dhule Municipal Corporation in Maharashtra is the latest to avail the services of Genrobotics. Two robots were deployed in Dhule as part of BPCL’s initiative. Genrobotics, along with BPCL, also helped organise a medical camp for sanitation workers.

“The robots are proving to be very effective and the workers are finding their operations easy to grasp,” said Aziz Shaikh, the Municipal Commissioner of Dhule. Dhule district has around 4,000 sewage chambers and 25 sanitation workers have currently completed their training in the first round of sessions conducted by the team.