With Assam recently deploying robots to clean drains, India took a step towards the eradication of manual scavenging which is still practised in the country, with unjust biases towards the workers. Moreover, tech is being deployed for cleaning purposes at a fast pace.
Crux of the Matter
On 28 July, 2020, the first ‘sewage-cleaning’ robot was inaugurated in Assam, named ‘BANDICOOT’. Developed by the ‘Genrobotics’ of Kerala, it is funded by Corporate Social Responsibility funds of the Indian Oil Corporation Limited.
The Guwahati Municipal Corporation also obtained six Skid Steer Loaders (mini loaders) from JCB and six Backhoe Loaders from firms CASE and BOBCAT each.
In March 2019, the Delhi government provided 200 sewer cleaning machines to manual scavengers. 200 workers were provided with these vehicles, having cleaning machines fitted on them. The machine removes the “practice of sanitation workers entering manholes and septic tanks for cleaning”.
The machines would be able to enter lanes of width 6 feet or more, and would be able to clean manholes till the depth of 30 feet.
The International Labour Organization defines manual scavenging in the following ways:
- Removal of human excrement from public streets and dry latrines.
- Cleaning septic tanks.
- Cleaning gutters and sewers.
However, these works are mostly done by caste groups “relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy”. In 2013, India passed a law that prohibits manual scavenging, making the employment of manual scavengers a ‘non-bailable’ offence. However, it is still practised at large scale in India.
The Supreme Court of India said in 2014 that more than 9.6 million “dry latrines” exist in the country which require manual scavenging. A study by the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) in 2018 claimed that 90% of the manual scavengers are women. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) claimed that manual scavenging is still practised in India due to ‘weak legal protection and lack of enforcement’.
Problems Faced By Manual Scavengers
- No salary: The Human Rights Watch reported in 2014 that several manual scavengers do not receive a salary, instead are provided with only “left over” food.
- Caste discrimination and untouchability: The Supreme Court observed in 2014 that of the total manual scavengers in India, “over 95% belonged to scheduled castes.
- Several workers are denied access to common resources like water ponds, wells etc.
- Extremely unclean and hazardous working conditions: In the 2016-18 period, 429 deaths due to manual scavenging were reported in Delhi alone by the Safai Karamchari Andolan organization.
- The Safai Karmachari Andolan organization has reported 1,760 deaths between 2000 and 2019 due to manual scavenging, citing the “inhaling of toxic fumes during scavenging” as the major reason for the deaths.
Cleaning Of Rivers
Several unorthodox ideas have emerged to clean rivers in India as well.
- Ro-Boat: It is a device created by Omnipresent Robot Tech that detects chemical pollution using GPS sensors and cameras, after which it pulls the polluted water, and releases it back after removing the pollutants. It is able to remove 600 kg of waste per day or ~200 tonnes per year from the river.
- ‘Help Us Green’ is a river cleaning project, which collects more than 2 tons of flower-waste per day from the places of worship near the Ganga river; the waste is then converted into compost and aromatic sticks. The organization employs poor people of the locality, and has increased the income of 70+ workers’ families by 6 times as of 2018.
- In the UK, India, and Ireland, the word “JCB” is often used colloquially as a generic description for mechanical diggers and excavators and now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, although it is still held as a trademark. JCB stands for the founder’s name, Joseph Cyril Bamford.
- Ruins from the Indus Valley Civilization like Mohenjo-daro had settlements with very sophisticated sewage systems. They included drainage channels, rainwater harvesting, and street ducts.
- The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations agency whose mandate is to advance social and economic justice through setting international labour standards. It is the first and oldest specialised agency of the UN. The ILO has 187 member states.
- Pratidin Time – ROBOTS To Clean Drains In Guwahati
- Human Rights Watch – Cleaning Human Waste
- SuSanA – Where there are no Sewers – Photoessays on Sanitation Work in Urban India
- India Today – Delhi Government provides 200 sewer cleaning machines to manual scavengers
- The New Indian Express – Manual scavenging continues in India due to weak laws: WHO Study
- The Better India – How Three Startups Are Using Innovative Methods to Clean and Restore River Ganga
- The Hindu – Manual scavenging left 282 dead since 2016