Jun 08, 2022 12 min read
A Road to Dignity
Kulbir (name changed) is a manual scavenger by profession. His job entails diving into sewer tanks to flush out stagnant filth inside. In the name of protective gear, all he has is a belt tied around his torso and attached to a rope. In the act of cleaning, carrying, and disposing untreated human excreta, he faces a risk of death from asphyxiation due to poisonous gases or the risk of contracting a fatal disease. At times to unblock sewage drain, he must hold his breath and go entirely inside the sewage water without a mask or proper safety gear. Last week three of his brethren engaged as manual scavenger in the neighboring municipality died inside the cesspool when they inhaled poisonous gases and sewage water entered their mouth.
Kulbir’s plight resonates with thousands of other workers engaged as manual scavengers. A total of 971 people lost their lives while cleaning sewers or septic tanks since 1993. Most of the deaths reported are due to accidents in septic tanks and sewer areas.
While the predicament of such workers has continued for decades, a group of four socially and environmentally conscious engineers from Kerala have found a way to end this dehumanizing practice. Borrowing its name from an Australian marsupial, ‘Bandicoot’ the robotic scavenger by ‘Genrobotics’ is slowly diving its way into sewers of India, liberating the sanitation workers from the claws of scavenging. Engineered to clean any type of sewer manholes, the robot has proved to be flexible, customizable, and efficient in its cleaning operations.
Launched originally in 2017 with its upgraded version getting unveiled by honorable PM Modi and UN secretary General in 2018, more than 100 robots have already been installed across 14 states in India. Bandicoot has done more than taking a step towards elimination of manual scavenging, it has given the sanitation workers hope and opportunity to live safe, healthy, and dignified life.
A Computer Science engineer from Calicut University, Director and Co-founder Mr. Rashid K shares his start-up journey and his thoughts on social and environmental responsibilities for the readers of HR Vista
In conversation with Bhanu Prakash Semwal and Naveli Singh.
The plight of manual scavengers has been a much talked about issue for a long time now. How is Bandicoot bringing about the desired change and making it last long?
Let me tell you briefly about these sanitation workers. The people involved in this profession generally belong to the lowest rungs of the society who fail at securing any other forms of employment. In fact, their identity as manual scavenger makes it even more difficult for them to seek employment in any other sector. Social ostracization is so strong that more often than not, they have to hide their profession from even their families. Due to their unsafe working environment, almost all of them suffer from fatal diseases. To deal with these social pressures, majority of them turn into alcoholics.
With Bandicoot our vision is twofold, first to end the practice of manual scavenging and second to rehabilitate these sanitation workers to become robot operators, thus offering them a dignified, safe, and hygienic mode of employment. When we employ the displaced sanitation workers as our robot operators, they are ensured continuity of their livelihood while giving them a safe and sound working environment. We find this to be a sustainable model of social change which brings dignity, health and inclusion to these people.
It wasn’t easy to gain the trust of the sanitation workers when we started. But once they came to know about the transformation of lives of fellow sanitation, the word of mouth spread, and the workers started supporting us. It worked like a ripple effect. Communication was the key in garnering the trust that this change was for better.
What you have shared has much wider implications. Over the past few years there has been a lot of hue and cry over robots replacing human jobs. Do the jobs generated with the implementation of Bandicoot rehabilitate the displaced manpower?
I feel whenever there is some technological advancement, there will always be some apprehension about its arrival. The advent of calculators and computers did not reduce the number of jobs rather increased it.
Similarly, robotics finds its application as an augmenter of human efforts and not a replacement of it. New advancements are done to make our work simpler and make our jobs more interesting and meaningful.
If I talk about Bandicoot in particular the current scenario is such that only 14-16% of the manholes are getting cleaned in a city. The municipal corporations do not have enough manpower to clean 100% manholes as of now. The job is such that if there is any alternate profession available, people would want to quit. At no cost would a parent want their children to undertake this kind of hazardous work. Thus, with upcoming generations, the employment in sanitation sectors, especially manual scavenging is decreasing.
This gives us a huge scope of rehabilitation of such workers. With greater coverage, employment of increasing number of sanitation workers as robot workers becomes possible.
You have come a long way since inception of Genrobotics. Tell us how and when did you decide to pursue innovation in this field?
We were a group of friends pursuing Engineering from Calicut university in different streams who met at the NSS camp. As our bond grew over the years, so did our mutual interest in the field of robotics. We started nurturing the dream of starting our own venture for developing products with a social impact. Our passion laid specifically in the field of augmenting human efforts with robotics. Our first step in this direction was developing an Exoskeleton designed to lift heavy weight for the army. However, while working on the exoskeleton, an article in the local newspaper reoriented our focus towards an extremely pressing issue.
The article had covered recent deaths in the state due to manual scavenging. Most of us come from villages and thus had very little idea about this practice since there were no manholes in our villages. On digging deeper into the issue, we started understanding the nuances of this dehumanizing practice at large. Manual scavengers had been facing the risk of death from asphyxiation due to poisonous gases and life-threatening diseases for a long time. This appalling reality firmed up our resolve to find a solution to this problem.
We decided to develop alternatives that could replace the ‘man’ from the manhole.
Manual scavenging is outlawed in India, yet thousands of people are still engaged in the work and many die cleaning sewers. How did four youngsters straight out of college surmount this difficult mission to end manual scavenging?
By the time we were done with our research in the field, we had already completed our engineering. Coming from very humble backgrounds, the founding team decided to join our campus recruiters to gain some corporate exposure and figure out the source of funds. We knew that establishing a company in the domain of robotics would require a huge investment which unfortunately none of us would be able to arrange.
We had initially decided to work for two years but as they say, monotony collapses time, none of us could continue for long. We realized that our calling was something else and that we would derive much more satisfaction in doing something that is our own brainchild. So, all of us quit from our respective firms after 6 months.
In 2017 we approached the Kerala Start-up Mission, which is the nodal office for supporting start-ups in Kerala and proposed our idea. Manual Scavenging still being an issue in the state, the government knew the gravity of the situation. They supported us in our endeavor by providing us with a grant and a space for our office and R&D activities for the starting year. They further connected us with the Kerala water authority who is the custodian for the sewage networks in the state. With their support we did a lot of groundwork by visiting manholes, sewage networks to understand the specific needs and issues faced during cleaning the sewage/ septic tanks. For instance, we found out that all existing mechanical devices were able to clean only at the centre of the pit and were not able to reach the corners. Thus, flexibility of the device became an important consideration for us.
It took us six months, a team of nine people and multiple iterations to finally arrive at Bandicoot 1.0. The unwavering support and suggestions for improvement from the government helped us a lot in our journey.
Coming from modest backgrounds, leaving your jobs to pursue your dream in an unchartered area would have been difficult. What was the driving force behind the team?
Our entire team shares this passion of developing solutions for social and environmental issues. This is something that drives and attracts all of us. I believe this a very important aspect of the bond that all our Co-founders share. Our frequencies match over bringing meaning to the work we do. And our approach is not just limited to Bandicoot. For example, we are developing a robotic solution for paraplegic patients which enables them to walk back into their lives, assisting in faster rehabilitation. All our upcoming products also have this underlying mandate of solving a social or an environmental issue.
In our hearts we knew that what we are pursuing is important and has the potential to change lives. This belief kept us going.
Your work doesn’t end with cleaning of the sewers. The waste that is generated and collected through these sewers also have a huge impact on the environment. How do you take care of these Environmental Concerns?
One of the biggest threats in a sewage is noxious gases and vapours. Once they begin to leak from, say, a damaged pipe, their concentration can build quickly, making the air unbreathable. This is especially dangerous for the workers getting down into the hole for cleaning. If exposed to these gases, there is a high chance of contracting pulmonary diseases.
Again, at a lot of places the liquid waste may get dumped directly into a nearby water body making the water unfit for human or animal consumption. Thus, timely and proper cleaning for the manholes becomes an extremely important concern for the health of the environment.
This is where a solution like Bandicoot plays an important role. The design is such that that robot ensures thorough cleaning of the sewage without manual intervention. The collected waste product is then sent to Sewage Treatment Plant for proper decomposition.
On the similar lines, we have recently signed an MoU with the R&D division of Indian Oil Corporation Limited for developing a robot for cleaning of Oil tanks, thus eliminating the need of manual intervention. Similar to a sewage tank, the oil tanker sediments may prove toxic to humans and the environment alike.
All our products aim to cover both social and environmental aspects of any issue.
From medical to oil & gas sector, you have a wide range of technological innovations forming the backbone of your products. Tell us how do you stay ahead of these technological developments?
As a team, Genrobotics loves to stay ahead of latest technological developments. Our dream is to make India a technological hub. Like ISRO is our pride in the domain of space related developments, we believe that we have the potential to spearhead developments across several technological domains. We have a team dedicated for research and exploration in the field of latest developments in technology across the globe. This team continuously experiments with technologies and shares feedback on the progress. At the management level all the co-founders meet periodically to brainstorm and decide on our short term and long-term priorities.
With Bandicoot for instance, we did not stop after its launch. We have been continuously improving its features making it more modular, flexible, reliable, and sustainable with every iteration. In 2018, Bandicoot 2.0 was launched. It is our Prime Minister’s vision to make India manual scavenging free. It is our constant endeavor to align our vision and actions to support the vision of the nation.
Genrobotics is doing a wonderful job in the technological, social and environmental space. Do you think an average organization is moving towards embeding sustainability in what they do? And how might the everyday person play a role in bringing about substantive change in their own communities?
I think there is a lot that we can do at an organization and at individual level. See every business has a commercial and a social aspect. The commercial aspect is crucial for the economy. Without the manufacturing and services, we cannot fulfill the needs of the population, there is no employment and no economic growth.
Organizations today are working hard to become environmentally sustainable too. The best of the organizations are making commitments to the environment and leading by example with adoption of sustainable practices. Companies today are being pushed to think beyond CSR and change the way they operate on a fundamental level to become eco-friendly. Social and environment issues have become crucial to business branding.
As an individual we can play our part by reducing energy usage and recycling waste. On a daily basis even if we are able to maintain our surroundings, recycle household wastes, plant trees and nurture them we can make a huge difference on a macro level. If we become conscious of our waste footprint, we not only care for our environment, but we also become aware of the fact that the burden of our waste disposal is transferred to the sanitation workers. We need to respect what we have and ensure a life of dignity for people around us.
I see that the civic engagement has increased over the years when it comes to the environmental issues. The people sensitivities have increased over time.
For example, in my village, where agriculture is the mainstay, the farmers realize the change in climatic conditions. They face losses when they do not receive rainfall on time or when the temperatures soar higher than expected. So, the realization is there till the lowest level. Our responsibility lies in making them aware of the reasons behind these climatic changes and what we can do to improve it.
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