In India, manual scavenging is a deadly job. Could a Bandicoot and a Sewer Croc help?
Updated October 23, 2019 11:51:23
They work all day in sewers and latrines, wading through filthy sludge up to their waists.
They carry untreated human waste in buckets without helmets, gloves or masks.
Every five days, on average, one of them will die.
It’s illegal and demeaning, but it’s work for more than 1 million people in India.
“The Indian government defines a manual scavenger as somebody who physically carries human excreta,” says Mumbai-based journalist and author Puja Changoiwala.
“The practice has been outlawed for 26 years, and technically on paper it is illegal to hire somebody as a manual scavenger, but the practice still exists.
“There are still people are who are doing this work, who are still dying, and no-one is being held accountable.”
Manual scavenging is linked to India’s caste system, and is performed by some of the country’s poorest and most disadvantaged people.
Of the 1.2 million people undertaking this work in India, 95 per cent are Dalits, according to an Asia Dalit Rights Forum report.
Also known as “Untouchables”, Dalits are the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system — the word itself means “oppressed” or “broken”.
Manual scavenging often involves unclogging overflowing sewers, and cleaning human excreta from latrines.
Workers use the most basic of tools: buckets, brooms and hands. The excreta are piled into baskets which scavengers carry away.
Working in these conditions also puts people at risk of skin and respiratory tract infections, among other illnesses.
And between January 2017 and September 2018, one manual scavenger died in India every five days, according to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis.
“There are toxic gases down these manholes,” Changoiwala says.
“Deaths often take place because of drowning in turgid waters, because of suffocation and oxygen depletion.”
But activists suggest the actual death toll may be much higher, as accurate records are not kept.
“In Mumbai, 265 deaths in the past three years and not one of these families have been compensated,” Changoiwala says.
“These men have died either on the job, or due to [ illnesses] contacted from the job.”
Robots that are ‘saving lives’
Last year the Indian government challenged innovators to create technology-based alternatives to manual scavenging.
Among the initiatives deployed since then are two robots called Bandicoot and Sewer Croc.
Changoiwala is hopeful that they’ll help make a difference.
“The Bandicoot is basically a 110-pound super-robot,” she says.
“It has an attachable water jet that clears blockages, and it has a camera which enables the operator to see footage of the manhole from inside.
“It is meant to replace manual scavengers.
“It finishes work in what would usually take two hours and at least three men in about 20 minutes.”
Sewer Croc is another tech-based solution.
“The machine goes down sewer lines. It has spring-loaded Teflon wheels, and it uses its cutting blades and high velocity water jet to cut through the debris,” Changoiwala says.
But these robots aren’t cheap, and they’ve had limited use so far.
Changoiwala says only 25 Bandicoot machines have been deployed across seven states in India.
“But I think these solutions are really important because they are saving lives, so I don’t think they should be discarded,” she says.
Changoiwala adds that it’s also important for India to have a sustainable social change, and to provide a compensation plan should robots replace these workers.
“For example, Bandicoot is doing that in a way. Bandicoot is training existing man scavengers to operate these machines,” she says.
“From scavengers they go to machine operators, which is a good transition, but I don’t know how many men will be absorbed into the new system.”
It leads to a broader and very complicated question: can India reshape itself to ensure that Dalits have an opportunity for decent work in the future?
“So long as the social injustice persists, it is difficult to get rid of the profession. But I do see it fading away slowly and I do see hope,” Changoiwala says.
“If technology really comes in, I think we can eradicate this profession, but not in the next five years.
“I think it will take another 10 to 15 years, but I do see it going away.”
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First posted October 23, 2019 09:30:00