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This New Drain-Cleaning Robot Will Save Indian Sewage Workers' Lives

With one manual scavenger dying every five days, this new invention provides an alternative to the harmful conditions they face.

by Shamani Joshi
29 July 2019, 10:03am

Photo: Carbon Zero Challenge Facebook page (left) and Wikimedia Commons (right)

India’s sewage system is already not a pretty sight but what makes matters worse is that about 8,00,000 unskilled workers around the country are sent down the manholes without proper safety gear or equipment. This exposes them to toxic gases—resulting from cleaning fluids and excrement—that can cause serious health complications. This is the reality of manual scavenging, which although outlawed in 1993, continues to rear its ugly head, resulting in the deaths of more than 600 labourers ever since, and authorities acknowledge that even this number is incomplete. According to a 2018 report by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), one sewer worker dies every five days. The dehumanising work is a result of caste-based oppression, with the job reserved for those belonging to a lower-caste. Even though India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to eradicate this profession by 2019, recent reports reveal that workers continue to die doing the dirty work.

So, in an effort to save lives and make things a little less shitty, IIT Madras Professor Dr Prabhu Rajagopal and his students from the Centre for Non-Destructive Evaluation have invented a 50-kg, pressure-powered, remote-controlled robot as a safer alternative to clean the sewers.

This robot, dubbed the Sepoy septic tank cleaner, is armed with 360-degree rotation technology that sweeps away all the filth that collects in the sewers. Powered with high-velocity cutters, it is capable of cleaning even thick layers of waste. It also has a camera installed in it, which means that the operator can safely sit outside and still be able to see all the shit going down in the sewers. Its maintenance cost is also fairly minimal and is estimated to be around Rs 5-10 lakh per year.

"Our goal is to prevent human entry into septic tanks,” Dr Rajagopal, the brainchild behind this operation, told India Today. “It is a question of the life of the human beings entering into the tanks which contain hazardous gases and harmful microbes. Our current Robot and future additions are aimed at achieving an integrated solution such that no human entry will be required to access, clean and maintain Septic Tanks."

The robot is currently undergoing heavy duty field-trials and mock drills, and is expected to enter the market sometime within the next two years. They have connected with NCSK and different Municipal Corporations to make sure it reaches the masses, and are currently on the lookout for commercial partners that can take the project forward.

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