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A manual scavenger in India. Photo by Sharada Prasada

A Robot Named Bandicoot Is Saving Lives of Manual Scavengers in India

Seventy-five workers have lost their lives during acts of manual scavenging since 2008 in the state of Karnataka alone, as per an estimate by the All India council of Trade Unions.

A total of 1,470 manual scavengers have died at work since 2010, according to the Safai Karamchari Andolan estimates.

There aren’t just numbers. This is a highly under-reported indicator of the fate that millions of Indians from the “untouchable” caste subject themselves to.

As per the Indian law, manual scavenging, i.e., the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, and disposing human excreta and garbage from sewers, is prohibited. It is a punishable, criminal act to employ anyone as a manual scavenger. Yet, the practice and act of manual scavenging a glaring reality in India.

Manual scavengers across India still not only clean sewers but do so at a grave risk to their lives. Most employers and municipal corporations don’t even offer a hat let alone the complete set of mandatory gear that is needed to manually clean a sewage link or tank. A majority of deaths occur due to excessive inhalation of poisonous gases that usually accumulate within sewage holes. There's mechanical accidents as well as heat stress and asphyxiation that also lead to many deaths.

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In Kerala, however, the scenario might completely change soon. A group of young innovators have developed a robot that could replace manual scavengers.

Inaugurated on Feb. 26 by the Kerala chief minister himself, "Bandicoot" is all set to eradicate the inhumane practice of manual scavenging by having the complete capability of cleaning manholes. The robotic technology is developed by GenRobotics, a start-up based in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

The start up recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Kerala Water Authority (KWA) to convert the innovation into a reality.

A four-legged, spider-like robot, Bandicoot encloses the complete set of equipment and capability to clean sewage lines and manholes. Bandicoot uses magnets to remove hole covers; it can expand and contract to fit into different spaces; and it cleans up holes with by efficiently removing human waste. Bandicoot has paved a road for a more human and efficient way to eradicate manual scavenging once and for all.

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Bandicoot's creation was inspired by the death of three manual scavengers in the Indian state of Bengaluru.

Currently in the first phase of implementation and trialling, Bandicoot not only holds the potential but also the promise of positively impacting the lives of hundreds and thousands of manual scavengers in India!