IIT-Madras Students Design Septic Tank Robot Which Can Eliminate Manual Scavenging

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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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SEPoy – a Septic Tank Cleaning Robot

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.

SEPoy Manual Scavenging Robot

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.

How the SEPoy robot operates

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.

SEPoy Manual Scavenging Robot

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.

N/Core Tech

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.

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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It's not how much we give
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