IIT-Madras students develop robot to clean septic tanks, govt and industry must make such tech scalable
Six people were killed on Tuesday near Chennai while cleaning a septic tank. Just a day after, news dailies carried reports of a group of students at IIT-Madras having developed a robot to clear septic tanks. While India must pin its hopes on these students and their tribe, the irony isn’t lost on anyone. The legal definition of “manual scavenger” excludes septic tank and sewer-line cleaners, but, given the nature of the work, it is often the same people who do manual scavenging and septic-tank/sewer line cleaning. Though it is illegal, sending a person down to clean the septic chamber is not uncommon. Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, and another law in 2013 reinforced this ban. Notwithstanding its illegality, however, there is still no official count of how many people continue to work in this hazardous and caste-based occupation beyond the Census 2011 figure of 1.8 lakh. Since 2017, one manual scavenger has died every five days, as per data from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis.
The IIT-M students and the accompanying mentors utilised high-velocity cutters that slash the thicker, sludge-like contents of the tank, after which the cut-up remains are sucked out through a vacuum pump. The technology is similar to that incorporated in the 200 sewer-cleaning machines introduced by the Delhi government at the end of last month. But what could come between the technology and its widespread adoption is costs: each of the Delhi machines cost Rs 40 lakh while the IIT-M robot is set to be priced at anywhere between Rs 10-30 lakh. While the Delhi machines are slated to be purchased and owned by the sanitation workers themselves with loan assistance arranged by the state government, the uncertainty of future returns looms large. Ravi Kumar Narra, the national working president of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, had mentioned that one of the reasons for employing a model in which workers owned the machines was so that these instruments could be maintained regularly and properly. Now, while the Central and state governments should be working towards getting rid of manual scavenging by providing alternative venues of employment, in the interim, the current crop of workers should be given safe and adequate working conditions and a decent, productive means of sustaining their livelihoods. The government and industry could perhaps work towards ensuring the scalability of technologies, thereby lessening the financial burden on sanitation workers.