Bandicoot, TN’s answer to manual scavenging, wages lonely battle

Manual scavenger, The Federal, English news website
Technicians of Kumbakonam municipality set up the Bandicoot robotic scavenger before employing it to clean sewers

In 2018, a robot in Kumbakonam municipality of Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, did what numerous deaths, protests and legislations weren’t able to – putting a stop to manual scavenging. The Thoothukudi municipality followed suit and deployed the robot named ‘Bandicoot Robotic Scavenger’ in March this year, to desilt sewers. However, the rest of the state is yet to follow the example, even though Tamil Nadu records the highest number of deaths – 144 – in the country till now, due to manual scavenging, as stated in the Parliament recently.

To a question raised in the Lok Sabha regarding manual scavenging, the ministry of social justice and empowerment replied that since 1993, around 620 deaths occurred across the country and Tamil Nadu topped the list with 144 deaths, followed by Gujarat with 131 deaths.

“Although the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed in 2013, manual scavenging is practiced all over the country. Even after the implementation of the Act, almost 40 people have been asphyxiated to death in Tamil Nadu,” says Samuel, the state convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, an organisation working towards the eradication of manual scavenging.

But what keeps the Tamil Nadu government from deploying the robot across the state? “It is the caste mentality among government officials that prevents them from machines to clean sewers and septic tanks. They always try to employ dalits for these kind of jobs,” said G Jakkaiyan, founder of Aathi Thamizhar Katchi. “The public is still not aware that resorting to manual scavenging is a crime,” he added.

The robot was developed by Genrobotics, a Kerala-based startup and was first launched in Thiruvananthapuram in February 2018. Following that, through the efforts of Pradeepkumar Masilamani, the then sub-collector of Thanjavur, the machine was employed in Kumbakonam municipality under Indian Oil Corporation’s CSR initiative.

“The robot now cleans around 5,000 manholes in Kumbakonam. Everyday around eight to 10 manholes are cleaned by this machine,” says Arun George, chief administrative officer, Genrobotics.

“Earlier we were afraid to send men into manholes which are usually 6 metres deep. It used to take a long time to clean it. But the machines have made the work easier. Now are able to clean the manholes within four to five minutes,” said a municipality engineer at Kumbakonam.

The start-up has deployed this robot also in Thoothukudi in March this year and we plan to deploy it in Coimbatore soon. On June 11, the company trained people from Ulavarkarai municipality of Pondicherry in handling the robot.

“We are a group of engineers and are involved in other social development projects like Swachch Bharat. We have till now reached as many as 16 states. We are trying to achieve complete eradication of manual scavenging by 2020” he added.

Speaking to The Federal, Masilamani, who is currently posted in Nagapattinam as an additional project director of Gaja Cyclone Rehabilitation Reconstruction and Rejuvenation said the robot can be used efficiently during the disaster times.

“It’s been almost a year since we deployed the robot in Kumbakonam. After we get reports on the efficiency of the robot, we will recommend the district administration to deploy it Nagapattinam,” he said.