Indian Institute of Technology Madras’ ‘HomoSEP,’ a Robot developed by the Institute’s Researchers to eliminate manual scavenging in India, is all set for field deployment.
A total of ten units are planned to be deployed across Tamil Nadu with the Researchers already in touch with Sanitation Workers to identify locations. Locations in Gujarat and Maharashtra are also being considered.
This robot has been developed over the last several years by a team led by Prof. Prabhu Rajagopal, Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, IIT Madras, and Faculty, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Madras together with IIT Madras-incubated start-up Solinas Integrity Private Limited. The team has been in close touch with Sanitation Workers and is supported by the NGO, Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) dedicated to the elimination of manual scavenging in India.
At present, the first two HomoSEP units have been distributed to self-help groups led by Ms. Nagamma and Ms. Ruth Mary whose husbands died tragically during sanitation work, through the support of the NGO, SKA.
In the unique model being pioneered, IIT Madras is empowering enterprises established by such self-help groups, whose key stakeholders will be women impacted by the tragic consequences of manual scavenging. The task of further distribution of 9 more units, several of which have already been fabricated as per the project plans, is ongoing.
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 fecal 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.”
Further, Prof. Prabhu Rajagopal added, “We are grateful that over the years a number of students including Divanshu and Bhavesh Narayani (IIT Madras MS alumnus now also with Solinas) have been inspired to work on this project, and today we have a dynamic team, reinforced by Solinas which is a start-up focusing on water and sanitation. Continued support from CSR channels has been vital to our progress so far and is key to scaling our work going forward. We also hope to leverage support from Government channels to mass-produce and distribute our solution on a much larger scale throughout the country from the next year.”
HomoSEP was first developed as a final year Masters’ project by Mr. Divanshu Kumar under the guidance of Prof. Rajagopal and showcased at the IIT Madras Carbon Zerp Challenge 2019, after receiving seed support from IIT Madras’ Socially Relevant Projects initiative. Despite the pandemic-related difficulties over the next couple of years, the IIT Madras researchers collaborated with an IIT Madras-incubated start-up Solinas Integrity Private Limited (now headed by Mr. Divanshu) to further develop HomoSEP.
This path-breaking project was supported first by several CSR donors over the years, starting with WIN Foundation in 2019 for initial prototype development. Between 2019-20, GAIL (India) supported further product development and CapGemini supported efforts toward miniaturization and portability of the robot, through their CSR initiatives. Over the last year, NSE Foundation and L&T Technology Services Foundation have commissioned the fabrication and distribution of 8 and 2 numbers HomoSEP robots respectively, again through CSR support.
The HomoSEP Robot can homogenize the hard sludge in septic tanks through a custom-developed rotary blade mechanism and pump the tanking slurry using an integrated suction mechanism. Sanitation Workers will be able to operate the HomoSEP on their own, after being provided with the relevant training and appropriate guidance along with necessary safety measures, both of which our team is working on right now. Safety plays a vital role in this whole procedure, starting with the design of HomoSEP itself.
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 the 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 miniaturization for better portability. Moreover, we integrated our product with a tractor so that it can reach remote locations.”
On this occasion, Ms. Nandini Dasgupta, Vice President, Alumni and Corporate Relations, Office of Institutional Advancement, IIT Madras said “I wish to congratulate Prof Prabhu and the team at Solinas for developing the HomoSEP. It restores dignity to the people who have worked in one of the most dehumanized and fatal environments due to extreme poverty and discrimination. We also wish to thank our donors for their support. This project is an excellent example of the role of collective action in CSR. The support received from our donors enabled IITM to impact the environment in a much larger way.”
Dr. Deepthi Sukumar, National core team member of Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) added “SKA, a movement against manual scavenging, has been campaigning for the mechanization of all sewerage work. This is history in the making when Ms. Nagamma, a widow of a person who died in a septic tank becomes the owner and an entrepreneur of mechanized septic tank cleaning services. Nagamma with the support of SKA is initiating the ‘Safai Karmachari Enterprises’ comprising of members who are former septic tank cleaners and family members of persons who were killed in manual scavenging. This enterprise will focus on changing the lives of Safai Karmachari communities with dignified livelihoods providing mechanized sanitation solutions to stop manual scavenging deaths and will engage with IIT Madras for their technical expertise and support.”
Ms. 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.”
Mr. 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.”