Just 10 days after becoming a father, Umesh, a 23-year-old sanitation worker, met an untimely death due to asphyxiation while cleaning a choked sewer in Gujarat’s Tharad town. Umesh’s death is one of over 100 similar incidents that have occurred across the country in recent times. More than half of the sanitation workers who met such tragic fates were between the ages of 25 and 30. These grim numbers reflect the harrowing reality of the sanitation sector in India, where the lives of those who perform this essential service remain undervalued and their safety and well-being neglected.
The sanitation workers often find themselves entrapped in an occupation historically considered unclean and relegated to the shadows of society. They form a socially invisible class of human labour despite their crucial role in maintaining public health and cleanliness. These workers face an array of challenges, including health and safety hazards, a predominantly informal working conditions, lack of safe, hygienic, and dignified working conditions, meagre and unreliable wages, and the enduring weight of social stigma.
In response to these challenges, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) has demonstrated a commitment to improve the safety and welfare of sanitation workers through various initiatives. These programmes, such as the Safai Mitra Suraksha Challenge, Safai Mitra Surakshit Shehr and NAMASTE, aim to mechanise sanitation services, advocate for the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and foster skill development within the workforce. While these efforts have made substantial progress on the demand side of sanitation, there is still a gap in integrating the supply side, which comprises the individuals carrying out sanitation work. This gap highlights the importance of professionalising sanitation operations through technological innovations.
While technology in isolation cannot resolve the multifaceted challenges faced by sanitation workers, if utilised and promoted effectively, it can potentially be a game-changer in ending the sanitation crisis.
India is currently experiencing an unprecedented wave of technological advancements and innovations, from its successful rocket launches into space to the development of robots capable of descending into sewer lines and septic tanks. We have many social sector innovators creating actionable plans and tech-backed solutions for resolving the country’s complex social issues. These innovations could revolutionise the sanitation sector and significantly improve the safety, well-being and dignity of sanitation workers.
An exemplary case in point is Solinas, a young start-up incubated at IIT Madras and promoted by the Wash Innovation Hub (WIH), which is actively combating the scourge of manual scavenging through a range of sewer, inspection chambers (often called manholes) and septic tank cleaning robotic solutions. One such innovation is HomoSEP Atom, a robotic septic tank and inspection chamber cleaner that can clear blockages and desludge entire chambers within an hour. The primary focus of this sanitation product is to eliminate manual scavenging by cleaning septic tanks without requiring manual entry. The HomoSEP robot can homogenise the bottom hard sludge of deep septic tanks and pump the slurry using an integrated suction mechanism. This innovation facilitates sludge cleaning without exposing workers to potentially hazardous environments. Solinas has devised a micro-entrepreneurship model that ensures the livelihood generation for sanitation workers by providing them with training to own and operate the machine. Several cities in India have adopted this service, ensuring the safety of sanitation workers while also providing them with dignified livelihood opportunities.
Another groundbreaking technological innovation in the sanitation sector is Genrobotics. This Kerala-based start-up has introduced Bandicoot, hailed as the world’s first robotic scavenger, designed to enter and clean sewer lines and inspection chambers, eliminating the need for sanitation workers to subject themselves to hazardous environments. Bandicoot has found acceptance in various Indian cities, such as Rohtak, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram, among others. It is a remotely operated robotic device with cameras, sensors and multiple attachments for cleaning and desilting operations. This technology not only enhances worker safety but also opens new avenues for sanitation workers to become professional operators. It is a matter of pride that Genrobotics is currently being deployed in ASEAN countries and the European markets.
JALODBUST Systems offers indigenous mechanised solutions for removing and transporting faecal sludge, septage and sewage from leach pits, septic tanks and sewers. Their JALODBUST SaniPreneur and Pride Equipment are designed to isolate workers from the unpleasant aspects of their work, such as the sight, smell and splash of faecal matter, ultimately ensuring their safety. JALODBUST has introduced battery-powered technology that employs shockwaves and agitation to break down, liquefy and pump out dense faecal sludge. This technology can also use shockwaves for declogging sanitary pipes, toilets and other related components. JALODBUST’s invention has garnered recognition and acclaim for its potential to revolutionise sanitation services and improve the working conditions of wet-sanitation workers.
Nimble Vision, a deep-tech start-up headquartered in Bengaluru, is at the forefront of merging technology and sustainability. Its Internet of Things (IoT) platform, specifically the Ni-The Smart Manhole Monitor, offers a groundbreaking solution to address pressing sustainability issues within the sanitation sector. This technology leverages the power of IoT, artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision to provide real-time, location-based analytics on sewage water levels, quality indicators and flow rates. By delivering predictive warnings for potential overflows, maintenance triggers and intelligent suggestions for infrastructure enhancement, it significantly reduces environmental impact, enhances human safety and effectively tackles sanitation maintenance challenges.
Several cities are deploying these award-winning technologies, ensuring that numerous individuals like Umesh remain alive and enjoy their prime years while benefiting from dignified livelihood opportunities.
Nevertheless, the primary challenge remains addressing why these life-saving social sector innovations have not been widely adopted across various cities and states. While at least 50 innovators offer similar sanitation solutions, only a few towns have identified and implemented their services. Addressing this gap is essential to tackle the sanitation crisis comprehensively.
Many of these innovations originate from passionate individuals focused on delivering disruptive technologies. The challenge they face is connecting with cities and states, accessing financing, scaling up their operations and developing strategies and business models. Without an enabling ecosystem, these start-ups often struggle to survive.
WIH at the Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI), a one-of-a-kind initiative, serves as an ecosystem for innovators and start-ups offering disruptive solutions to address significant municipal service delivery challenges.
The twin passions of ending the sanitation crisis and connecting start-ups with urban local bodies serve as the driving force behind creating an exclusive ecosystem that addresses the pressing needs of start-ups. These include establishing connections with cities and promoting ease of doing business for innovators, accessing financial resources, navigating government schemes, providing mentorship, capacity building and developing business strategies for scaling up.
Established by ASCI in collaboration with the government of Telangana, WIH promotes disruptive innovations in sanitation and operates with an integrated approach to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). It collaborates with governments, corporations and financial institutions to implement practical and innovative solutions at scale.
It is exciting to see that a paradigm shift is underway in the social innovation sector. The energy and enthusiasm were evident on platforms like the INK@WASH (Innovations, New Knowledge in WASH) event, a flagship initiative of WIH, highlighting the paradigm shift underway in the social innovation sector. Such events have witnessed the participation of various stakeholders, including government entities, CSR heads, investors, philanthropic foundations and researchers, in large numbers, reflecting the excitement in fostering partnerships to facilitate the growth of disruptive technologies while ensuring the benefits of innovation reach the most vulnerable sections of society.
WIH’s collaboration with over 200 start-ups as the technical partner of the AMRUT Startup Challenge reaffirms the commitment to ensure that technological adoption is the key to leaving no one behind. All these elements underscore the importance of creating an enabling ecosystem to accelerate innovations in the sanitation sector.
The sanitation crisis in India can be effectively addressed through the professionalisation of sanitation operations, systems improvement and the integration of technological innovations. Adopting innovative approaches can significantly improve the safety and well-being of sanitation workers, restore their dignity, empower them economically, enhance public health and cleanliness and ensure compliance with laws. India’s technological progress offers an unprecedented opportunity to transform sanitation workers into professional operators and save lives. This endeavour combines the power of technology, innovation and compassion to bring about a brighter future for those who have long been overlooked and undervalued in their vital role in society.
V Srinivas Chary is Professor, and CEO, WASH Innovation Hub. He has co-authored the column with Sayan Mondal, Programme Lead, WASH Innovation Hub and Asher George, Senior Manager, Communications, ASCI.