Three days ago, four manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu lost their lives while cleaning a septic tank at a factory. The same day, another sanitation worker lost his life while he was cleaning a sewage line in Kurali, Chandigarh. In Gurugram, two more deaths of manual scavengers were reported later that day, who apparently perished from the toxic fumes inside a septic tank.
Although manual scavenging has been prohibited by law in 2013, the practice still exists almost all over India, both in rural and urban setups. Men continue to carry out the inhuman work of manually cleaning noxious sewage waste, risking their lives.
A 2018 report by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) states that in every five days, one person dies while cleaning septic tanks or sewer lines, hinting that a large number of manual scavengers still exists in India.
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Efforts have been evident time and again from both the government and the non-profit development sector to curb this obsolete practice. Rehabilitation and skill-based employment opportunities have been doled out to keep them engaged in alternative professions.
Recently, a team of IIT-Madras students has found a tech-based solution to the menace. Final year student Divanshu Kumar and his team invented SEPoy – a Septic Tank Cleaning Robot which has the potential to eradicate manual scavenging altogether. Guided by Dr Prabhu Rajgopal, an expert in this domain, the team has developed an advanced design which enables the robot to “cut and homogenize sludge in Septic Tanks so that it can be sucked off using vacuum pumps,” as mentioned in its technical description. The machine, if commercially manufactured, can cost between Rs 10 lakh to Rs 30 lakh, depending on specialisations installed.
Meeting with manual scavengers
“Dr Rajagopal has been involved in this project for over four years. In fact, a precursor prototype to our robot was also designed by our seniors Tanmay Mothe and Kranthi Chaitanya. However, after several meetings to Safai Karmacharis (manual scavengers), we realised that we need to upgrade the design, to make it more compliant so that no special skills are required to operate the machine.” informs Divanshu, in a conversation with Efforts For Good.
The machine, which is scheduled to be deployed on site within another three to six months, is specifically designed for septic tanks. “Many people have invented technology to clean sewer lines, but septic tanks pose a higher risk for manual scavengers. We decided to bring this problem to the limelight, which makes our robot distinctive from the manual scavenging robots already in the market,” clarifies Divanshu.
Interaction with the Safai Karmacharis made the team understand how the sludge of a septic tank differs from that of a sewer line. “In septic tanks, the sludge is highly viscous, which makes it difficult for a machine to navigate through. So we needed a robust design. Also, since the hole of a septic tank is very small, our robot needed to be compact. So we made a robot which easily slides into the tank and expands inside,” he shares.
The SEPoy robot comprises bio-inspired propulsion, whose motion is set to mimic the fin movements of a fish inside water. “The machine will go inside the tank and expand. Then it will homogenise the entire sludge and pump it out with a vacuum pump,” Divanshu explains.
High definition cameras with electronic gimbal are attached to the machine body, which turns the robot into a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), that can be monitored and operated from a considerable distance. Inside a septic tank, the robot can move around in three directions and proceed forward by removing the sludge at one place.
As of now, the robot has been tested successfully in a mock setup simulated to resemble the environment inside a septic tank. The team is in close touch with NGO Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), which is devoted to eliminating manual scavenging from the country. The NGO has highly appreciated the invention of SEPoy and hopes it aids in their ultimate goal.
Other developmental projects by Divanshu Kumar
Interestingly, this is not the first time Divanshu Kumar has resorted to technology to address a social issue. He has started the organisation Involve Learning to develop leadership proficiency in school students through a peer-to-peer learning system, where senior students are teaching their junior classes.
The foundation is operated by Divanshu and two other youth leaders from IIT Madras. They are targeting an outreach up to 1,25,000 students in the next five years.
When two entirely unrelated words as ‘drinkable’ and ‘book’ are put together side by side, it takes us quite a while to grasp the practicality of the product it designates. However bizarre it might sound, the ‘ Drinkable Book ’ is undoubtedly a revolutionary invention.
Manufactured by a group of researchers in the USA, in collaboration with non-profit organisation WATERisLIFE, the ‘Drinkable Book’ is ensuring clean drinking water in developing countries of Africa and Asia.
So what exactly is ‘ Drinkable Book ’?
“It’s the first ever manual that provides safe water, sanitation, and hygiene education — all in one! Each page is a literal water filter inscribed with hygiene and sanitation education,” reads the description of the book on the WATERisLIFE website.
The book is the brainchild of Theresa Dankovich, a researcher at the Carnegie Mellon University, who designed an efficient filtration system with silver nanoparticles infused on a page made of cellulose. Later, she also upgraded the design by introducing copper nanoparticles, which give the same result, but at a lesser expense.
The advanced paper filter is capable of eliminating nearly 99.9% of disease-causing bacteria present in sewage water. When sewage-contaminated water is sieved through the filter, harmful bacteria like E.coli are killed by absorbing the silver and copper ions, which have noted antibacterial properties.
Each book can last up to four years
The filter has undergone several field tests in areas like South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Haiti and Bangladesh, which face consistent scarcity of clean drinking water. At all places, the result has been astonishingly successful, ridding the polluted water of over 99% of contaminants.
The ‘Drinkable Book’ is a compilation of 25 pages of such filters, with information on sanitary hygiene printed on each page with edible colour. Each page can last for weeks and one book has the ability to solve an individual’s or a family’s water woes for up to four years.
The challenges and future prospects
Though the cutting-edge technology is turning heads in the scientific community, its sustainability in actual zones of need is yet to be ascertained properly. One main roadblock happens to be educating the people about how to use and replace the filters in time. Also, the book is still being developed further by researchers and would take some time before being commercially launched. In an interview with Washington Post, Dankovich had shared that her target was to bring down the cost of each filter within 10 cents (approx. INR 7) so that the underprivileged communities can afford the book easily.
At present, the filters are handcrafted which increases the production time and cost. The creator is aiming for automated bulk production of these, without compromising on the quality and efficiency.
If the ‘Drinkable Book’ is made available globally, it will certainly transform the dynamics of water wastage and recycling, helping the population take a big leap towards sustainable usage of this priceless resource.