Kochi: Late 2015, in Kozhikode, Kerala, three people – two migrant workers from Andhra Pradesh and an auto driver, a native of the city – died due to asphyxiation in a manhole.
Another death followed in the southern part of the state in 2016 too.
Though outlawed in 1993, manual scavenging – where people have to manually clean manholes or drains and remove human faecal waste – still occurs in India. Deaths, of workers who descend into these closed spaces, are not uncommon. As per the Union government, 233 people died in 2022 alone due to “accidents” that occurred while “undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks”.
Media reports and pictures of these incidents in Kerala in 2015-16 got a team of freshly-minted young innovators in the state, who had just started out in the field of robotics, thinking: could they use their engineering skills to prevent manhole deaths?
Thus was born Bandicoot, a robot that can clean manholes. The device’s drone unit, improvised with four spider-like legs to grip the sides of a manhole, can grip and pull out waste. It thereby eliminates the need for people to physically descend into the dangerous, often toxic-gas spewing manholes. Genrobotics, the Kerala-based startup that created Bandicoot and started off in their home state, now has orders to supply Bandicoots to 18 other states in India. They have also begun exporting the robot to other countries including Malaysia.
To create Bandicoot, the team drew heavily from nature in many ways, including analysing how bandicoots (or bandicoot rats, a group of large rodents found in India) move in sewers, CEO and co-founder Vimal Govind M.K. told The Wire. He added that governments can offer better support by making more space for technological innovations that can address existing social and even environmental issues such as theirs.
But though Bandicoot is “remarkable”, it is only one of the solutions to address one form of manual scavenging, that of manually cleaning manholes, said social activist Bezwada Wilson. Lakhs of workers are employed to clean dry latrines and there is no technology yet to address that. The Indian government needs to do much more than find mechanisation solutions for manual scavenging, he added.
The birth of Bandicoot
“We can send machines to Mars that can be controlled from here,” CEO and co-founder of Genrobotics Vimal Govind told The Wire. “Then why do we need to send a human being into a manhole?”
In 2017, Govind, Arun George and Nikhil N.P., who had just founded Genrobotics, began brainstorming on ideas to develop a robot that could clean manholes. With funding from the state government’s Kerala Startup Mission, the team kicked into action.
First, they undertook field research to study Kerala’s drainage system and manholes, with permissions from the Kerala Water Authority. To develop their prototype, they drew inspiration from the earlier mentioned animal belonging to the rodent family. The team studied the movements of the bandicoot, which looks much like an outsized rat with beady red eyes, and noted the features that helped it move nimbly through sewers. So they called their rat-like robot Bandicoot.
Later, after more tweaks, the team improved on their design: they added to Bandicoot’s drone unit four spindly but strong legs, so that it could grip the walls of a manhole better as it picked up the waste inside and drew it out. But though the robot finally looked more like a spider, “Bandicoot”, it remained.
In fact, many new robots that the team has developed – and are currently developing – also draw heavily from nature, Govind told The Wire. Another robot, Wilboar, that will be launched soon captures the features of a wild boar to clean bigger confined industrial spaces including those that handle toxic waste. G-Beetle, an advanced skyscraper facade cleaning robot, draws inspiration for its aerodynamics from a beetle (an insect that can easily scale vertical surfaces), the developer said.
“Nature is the biggest teacher and if we observe nature we can learn a lot more, how nature handles different problems,” Govind said.
But most importantly, to design Bandicoot, the team spoke with the most important stakeholders – sanitation workers. “We used the concept of user experience to design a simple robot that sanitation workers can operate with some training and thus empower themselves,” Govind said.
The first Bandicoot, which Govind says is the world’s first ever robotic scavenger, made its debut in 2018. The Kerala government bought it. Because their design fits with the national standards specified by the ISO for manholes, Bandicoots can be adopted across states, and even countries. Today, the team has sold more than 500 units in India alone and 19 states including Kerala have placed orders for Bandicoots or begun using them to clean manholes. The team has also started exporting units to countries including Malaysia, Govind said.
Bandicoot has also brought to Genrobotics many laurels, ranging from grants and funding to awards and mentions. Some of them include Startup India’s National Startup Award 2020, the Infosys Foundation’s Aarohan Social Innovation award the same year and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs’ Swachhata Startup Challenge in 2022. Most recently, all its four co-founders are featured in the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2023 list.
According to Govind, one of the main challenges is the governmental system of tenders, where the project goes to the lowest bidder. A single Bandicoot unit costs between INR 12 to 40 lakh (depending on the features and technology incorporated into it) and corners cannot be cut, Govind said. There is also no “mentality” for innovation in administrative departments. Governments can offer better support by making more space for technological innovations that can address existing social and even environmental issues such as theirs, he added.
Remarkable effort, but not end-all solution
Bandicoot is a “remarkable” innovation and the creators, who conceived of the idea as students, have to be “encouraged and appreciated”, said social activist Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan which works towards eradicating manual scavenging in India.
However, Bandicoot is not the solution to eliminate manual scavenging, it can only prevent people from descending into manholes, said Wilson, who won the Ramon Magsasay award in 2016 for his work on empowering sanitation workers.
“But manual scavenging is a bigger problem,” Wilson said.
There are more than 130 crore people using toilets in India daily, he told The Wire. Many toilets, such as dry latrines, are not connected to a sewage system. As per the Safai Karmachari Andolan’s website, dry latrines – which can include community latrines and individual ones – require human faecal waste to be removed on a daily basis, manually and around 26 lakh workers are currently employed to do this in India. This is far higher than the 7.7 lakh workers that are employed to clean sewers across the country. There is no technology yet to address this, and it is a crucial gap that needs to be plugged to address the larger issue, he said.
Buying a few Bandicoots does not mean that governments or administrations can claim to have addressed manual scavenging because it is a far bigger issue that needs multiple solutions including more investment from the government and incorporating additional technology, Wilson added.
“Tell me one city [in India] which has developed a final solution for manual scavenging? Not one,” he said.