It is four years into the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), but almost nothing has been done to save sanitation workers from risking their lives while clearing sewers and septic tanks. Ideally, putting an end to manual scavenging, declared illegal by the courts, should have been the very first initiative of the SBM.

Last month, five sanitation workers died in Delhi trying to clean a septic tank. But that did not stir the administration to act or identify a suitable technology to clean sewers and tanks. The Delhi incident is not an isolated one. The Safai Karamchari Andolan, a movement that aims to end manual scavenging, recently estimated that 1,790 people died while manually cleaning sewers and septic tanks since 1993. The death toll in the last two years stands at about 221. The statistics do not factor in health issues which crop up when sanitation workers are exposed to poisonous gases and skin diseases.

In fact, the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, which also works towards rehabilitation of manual scavenging, points to the abysmal work conditions under which sanitation workers operate. They are equipped with just sticks, metal scrapers and baskets. Gumboots, masks, gas detectors, safety belts — all mandatory equipment for entering sewers and tanks — are almost always never provided. The sad truth is that there is no a concerted national effort to mechanise the cleaning process to ensure that manual intervention is eliminated.

Luckily, there are individual initiatives by state governments. In January Kerala announced that it will be using a robot developed by Genrobotics, a start-up, to clean the State’s sewers. Christened Bandicoot, the device is designed with four limbs and has a bucket system attached to a spider web like extension. This can enter a manhole and clear it. There is also ‘hydro-jetting’ technology which involves high-pressure water hoses crawling into manholes to clear stubborn blockages. There will surely be other solutions as well. So, what stops India from investing in such technologies? If we can afford the Mars Mission, then why not one that restores human dignity and saves precious lives?