Udaipur- Rajasthan is on the brink of bidding farewell to the perilous era of accidents during manual sewerage cleaning. The state's municipal bodies are now armed with cutting-edge robots, aptly named Bandicoot machines, poised to transform the landscape of sanitation. With two robots allocated to each of the 10 municipal corporations and one to each of the 203 municipalities and city councils, Rajasthan is heralding a new era where human lives are spared from the inherent dangers of manual sewerage cleaning.
Over the past five years, Rajasthan has witnessed the tragic loss of 13 lives due to manual scavenging. The Central government introduced the Safai Mitra Suraksha Challenge in 2020. This initiative aims to eliminate manual scavenging across India by promoting the use of mechanized solutions. In response, Ashok Gehlot led government took decisive action by prohibiting manual scavenging in septic tanks or sewage chambers in the state.
On July 6, 2021, the Rajasthan government, through an order, mandated officials to ensure the use of machines for cleaning septic tanks or sewage chambers. This directive, aimed at safeguarding the lives of workers, specifically emphasizes that no individual should enter these chambers for cleaning purposes.
In September 2022, Jaipur became the first city in Rajasthan to deploy Bandicoot robots to safely clean manholes. Municipal Corporation Udaipur recently acquired two robots from the Rajasthan Urban Infrastructure Development Project (RUDIP), manufactured by the GenRobotics Company in Kerala. Valued at approximately Rs 39 lakh, these robots were procured during the tenure of the previous Congress government.
Neighbouring Rajsamand Municipal Council and Nathdwara Municipality received their robots two days ago, and Udaipur is expected to receive them this week.
Many sanitation workers in India die from inhaling toxic gasses while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. In the last five years, from 2018 to 2023, more than 400 people lost their lives while cleaning sewers. Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, shared this information recently in response to a question from Trinamool Congress member Aparupa Poddar about manual scavenging in India. According to the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, manual scavenging is prohibited in the country.
As of November 29,2023, total 714 out of the 766 districts in India have proclaimed themselves free from manual scavenging. However, activists argue that this data, akin to the questionable Open Defecation Free (ODF) figures, may not reflect the ground reality, as some states declared themselves ODF-free despite ongoing challenges of defecating in the open.
Bandicoot, a revolutionary robot designed to clean manholes, is a game-changer in addressing the hazardous task of manually descending into toxic and dangerous manholes. Created by Genrobotics, a Kerala-based startup, Bandicoot's drone unit is equipped with four spider-like legs that can grip the sides of a manhole, allowing it to efficiently pull out waste. This innovation eliminates the need for individuals to physically enter these perilous environments.
Designed by 9 engineers in Kerala, Bandicoot was launched in February 2018 after its successful run in capital Thiruvananthapuram, unclogging 5 manholes filled with plastic, filth, medical waste and sediments. The startup has secured orders to supply Bandicoots to 18 states in India and has expanded its reach globally by exporting the robot to countries such as Malaysia.
The inspiration for Bandicoot's design stems from a close study of nature, particularly the movement patterns of bandicoots, a group of large rodents found in India. The first Bandicoot made its debut in 2018 when the Kerala government purchased the ground breaking robotic scavenger. Notably, Bandicoot's design adheres to national standards specified by the ISO for manholes, making it adaptable for use across various states and even internationally.
Since its introduction, Bandicoot has gained widespread acceptance, with the team selling over 500 units in India alone. Nineteen states, including Kerala, have either placed orders for Bandicoots or have already incorporated them into their manhole cleaning operations.
Manual scavenging, the practice of cleaning human excreta, is prevalent in India, driven by the deeply entrenched caste system that forces individuals from specific communities, often labelled as 'untouchables,' into this degrading occupation.
Despite being outlawed, manual scavenging persists in various forms, with government entities, including municipalities and Indian railways, still employing workers for these tasks. The practice is not limited to public spaces; it extends into private homes and community toilets.
Workers engaged in manual scavenging endure dehumanizing conditions, being forced to handle human excreta and transport it on their heads or against their waists. This includes cleaning drains, sewers, septic tanks, and even railway tracks. The practice is particularly rampant during festivals and large gatherings.
According to the Safai Karamchari Andolan website, a significant factor contributing to manual scavenging is the prevalence of dry latrines. The 2011 census reported a staggering 26,07,612 such latrines in India, employing manual scavengers for their cleaning. Tragically, nearly 2,000 manual scavengers succumb to death annually in sewers, primarily due to exposure to poisonous gases. This number could be higher when accounting for deaths occurring in septic tanks however, the official records show relatively lower number of deaths due to manual scavenging.
Dry Latrines: India houses 26 lakh dry latrines. (2011 Census)
Sewer Cleaners: Approximately 7 lakh 70 thousand individuals, predominantly from the Dalit community, are engaged in sewer cleaning.
Rajasthan has 16363230 dry latrines while 3498 persons are engaged in sewer cleaning, and 13 deaths have been reported in past 5 years.