KERALA, India — There is a lot of debate and uncertainty about robots taking away jobs but in India; however, there is one robot that people are gladly handing work over to. Manual sewer cleaning, called manual scavenging, has been a practice outlawed in India since 1993. Unfortunately, the practice is still widespread in the country due to a lack of viable alternatives. However, the introduction of Bandicoot in India may forever change the lives of the people who have been tasked with this dangerous work.
Manual scavenging is dirty and dangerous. People lower themselves into sewers with little or no protective gear and spend hours waist-deep in sewage attempting to unclog drains. In the past four years alone, these working conditions have led to more than 300 manhole fatalities in India. In fact, one person dies every day doing manual scavenging.
This unsanitary and hazardous work is almost exclusively carried out by the lowest members of India’s ancient caste system. The caste system splits Indian society into different levels of social desirability. At the top of the social order are Brahmins, who were traditionally teachers and priests. At the bottom are Dalits, who were considered outcasts and, therefore, cleaners. Manual scavenging is clearly undesirable employment, but members of the Dalit class often have no other recourse for work because, historically, it was the task delegated to them. Now, there is a ray of hope.
Bandicoot the Robot
Meet the Bandicoot robot. In 2016, a group of nine engineers founded the startup Team Genrobotics in the Indian state of Kerala. Working in close collaboration with the Kerala Startup Mission and the state’s water supply and waste-water disposal department, Genrobotics developed the Bandicoot robot. This new robot is capable of doing the work of manual scavengers without putting people’s lives at risk.
The Bandicoot robot resembles a spider so that it can reach down into sewers autonomously to clear rubbish. Bandicoot completed its first successful test run in the Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram in February of 2018. The robot can remove sludge and debris from a large sewer in 45 minutes. A traditional manual scavenger would take up to two hours to complete the same task.
Another positive aspect of Bandicoot is that these robots will not be putting anyone out of work. One of Genrobotics’ founders, Arun George, explained that “we didn’t want [municipal workers]to be unemployed, so we made the user interface of the robots so simple that they can operate it.” Genrobotics is currently working with NGOs in India to train workers to use Bandicoot in the future.
Adapting the Technology
There were significant challenges to employing the Bandicoot across India, but the engineers in Genrobotics were up to the task. For example, manhole covers in India are not standardized and often vary in shape and size. To work around this, Genrobotics has simplified the Bandicoot and made it more flexible and compact so that it can adjust to specific conditions.
The technology is also rapidly spreading beyond Kerala. Bandicoot has already been obtained by the town of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu and in the Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh. Most importantly, the robot has serious positive implications for India’s lowest caste members. As Vimal Govind, one of the founders of Genrobotics, explained, the Bandicoot “will help [manual scavengers]earn a decent living without fear of losing jobs and lives. It will also break the caste system. Bandicoot will ensure manholes in India will remain clean without losing human lives.”
Obviously, changing this one aspect of life for the Dalit caste will not solve all of the problems they face; however, Bandicoot in India represents a step in the right direction. People are actively working to break the caste system in India and change the lives of the Dalit for the better.