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IIT Madras’ New Robot Has the Potential to End Manual Scavenging in India

Manual Scavenging claims the lives of so many individuals each year. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 bans the practice of having humans enter the sewers to clean them without protective equipment. However, this has not really stopped this activity from taking place and hundreds of manual scavengers lose their lives each year in the country.
With an aim to eliminate the need to employ manual scavengers in the first place, a team from IIT Madras had been working on developing a robot that would replace the humans entering such toxic environment. The robot known as ‘HomoSEP,’ is now ready for field deployment.
According to a recent announcement, a total of ten units will be deployed across Tamil Nadu, with researchers already in contact with sanitation personnel to determine where they would be placed. Gujarat and Maharashtra are also being explored as possible locations.
This robot was created over several years by a team directed by Prof. Prabhu Rajagopal, Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, IIT Madras, and Faculty, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Madras, in collaboration with Solinas Integrity Private Limited, an IIT Madras-incubated start-up. The team has maintained regular contact with sanitation workers and is backed by the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an NGO dedicated to ending manual scavenging in India.
Through the sponsorship of the NGO SKA, the first two HomoSEP units have been handed to self-help groups led by Ms. Nagamma and Ms. Ruth Mary, whose husbands tragically died during sanitation work.
IIT Madras is supporting firms founded by such self-help groups, whose major stakeholders would be women afflicted by the fatal repercussions of manual scavenging, in a novel model being pioneered.
The task of distributing 9 more units, some of which have already been produced according to project specifications, is still ongoing.

Dangerous Septic Tanks

Highlighting his motivations behind developing HomoSEP, Prof. Prabhu Rajagopal, Principal Investigator of the Project and Faculty, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Madras, said, “The septic tank is a poisonous environment, filled with semi-solid and semi-fluid human faecal material that make up about two-thirds of the tank. Hundreds of deaths are reported every year across India, due to manual scavenging in septic tanks despite bans and prohibitory orders.”
Prof. Prabhu Rajagopal added, “The HomoSEP project is unique for the way it has brought together the key stakeholders, including university (our team), NGO, Industry CSR and start-up to develop a solution to an urgent and pressing social problem. No doubt the problem is large and complex, and we hope that our effort serves as an inspiration for others to join in the push.”

Features of HomoSEP

The HomoSEP Robot uses a custom-developed rotating blade mechanism to homogenise hard sludge in septic tanks and an integrated suction mechanism to pump the tank slurry.
Sanitation employees will be able to operate the HomoSEP on their own after receiving the necessary training and instruction, as well as the essential safety measures, which our team is currently working on.
Starting with the design of HomoSEP, safety is paramount throughout the procedure.
Mr. Bhavesh Narayani, Product Lead, Solinas Integrity, the Startup partner, added “The path from a Laboratory product to deploying a robot in a real Septic Tank field is fraught with difficulties. Our team spent many sleepless nights, designing a solution keeping in mind, the safety of the Safai Karamcharis (Sanitation Workers. Because of the dedication and hard work of our committed and motivated team of engineers, fabricators, and technicians, we are able to reach this milestone. Our team is conducting frequent training and safety sessions with the Safai Karamcharis on functionalities and operation of the HomoSEP robot. The joy on their faces today as a result of the HomoSEP is the most motivating factor for us to work more and distribute more. We believe that working together, we can eliminate manual scavenging from Septic Tanks.”
Mr. Bhavesh Narayani added, “Our joint team has made some significant innovations to the first proof-of-concept model. We improved the blade design through extensive simulation and mock-up trials and achieved a miniaturization for better portability. Moreover we integrated our product with a tractor so that it can reach remote locations.”

CSR Backing

Rema Mohan, Chief Executive Officer, NSE Foundation said “Manual scavenging is a practice even after 75 years of independence, which devastates the lives of many communities.
We at the NSE Foundation have been passionate about finding solutions to this tragic problem. We were happy to support Prof. Prabhu Rajagopal’s team at IIT Madras as they had carried out years of development and also had the right partnerships with the stakeholders.
We are pleased to learn that Prof Prabhu Rajagaopal’s team has started distributing the HomoSEP robots with NSE Foundation support. We do hope this makes a positive impact on the ground and we look forward to working together with the team in widening the scale and reach of this solution in a holistic framework.”
Kumar Anurag Pratap, CSR Leader, Capgemini added, “Capgemini is delighted to have partnered with IIT-M and acted as a catalyst for the development of the HomoSEP robot—a device created to eliminate sludge in septic tanks and thereby eradicate the practice of human scavenging.
Capgemini’s CSR team is pleased to note that Prof. Prabhu’s team at IIT Madras has started the process of distribution of the HomoSEP robots. Our best wishes to the Safai Karamchari community to trial this solution. We look forward to partnering with Prof Prabhu’s team again in the future in strengthening the impact of their solution.”