This Bangalore based social startup’s transformative innovation can put a stop to manual scavenging and empower the marginalised communities.
The Filthy Underbelly of Our Cities
Our fast-paced, dazzling, metropolitan lives sure are a haven of comfort. The neatly planned apartment complexes, clean roads, and bright shopping complexes are looked up to by many people. However, interspersed with or at the outskirts of these urban islands of gold are the dark seas of gloom. Dilapidated shanties, slums, and tents are brimming with meek bodies, all seemingly looking the same. Garbage, filth, animals and humans stuffed together in a single place.
Most of these slums in or near our cities are occupied by cleaners, sweepers, and manual scavengers. They make a menial living by doing these odd jobs. Moreover in India, they are a victim of the entrenched caste system that assigns occupations as per their caste i.e. the family in which they are born.
Almost all of the 11 crore toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Mission since 2014 discharge into a leach pit on pour and flushing. This pit gets occupied by almost 25 litres of solid material per person per year, filling up within 2-3 years. The solid materials consolidate and only a man with a shovel and bucket can remove this semi-solid faecal sludge by entering into the pit to empty it.
“Manual scavenging refers to manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of human excreta from an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or sewer or in a septic tank or a pit. Manual scavengers usually use hand tools such as buckets, brooms and shovels.”– Wikipedia
Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 came into effect from 6th December 2013. It bans manual scavenging, provides for imprisonment in case of violations, and alternative employment opportunities for manual scavengers. Contrary to official statements, this abhorrent practise still continues in absence of appropriate technology and has been pointed out by WHO by stating that ‘Manual Scavenging has gone underground in India. The stand beats even the logically explanation because unless more than 1,00,000 pits are emptied each day, how are 10 crore toilets emptied once in every 3 years. Besides, due to multiple systemic and behavioural factors, it seems that real solutions are not supported and encouraged on the ground.
The Soul Wrenching Job
Manual scavenging occurs whenever a person comes in contact with sewage while cleaning a blocked drain or an overflowing manhole or a sewage pit. The entering into a manhole or leach pit/ septic tank is done mostly by male members after consuming liquor to overcome the repulsive stench whereas the faecal waste handling is mostly done by women.
Lack of effective life choices compels them to enter into this cesspool of rotting human excreta waste without any protective gear. Such tanks and pits contain toxic gases like Hydrogen Sulphide, Methane, Ammonia, Sulphur Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide that can even result in the death of the person.
It goes without saying that this practice of manual scavenging which started with the 1st toilet 1000’s of years ago where one man was forced to clean the other person’s excreta may have run under forced physical slavery, the practice is continuing even today on the dint of economic slavery.
Once the drain or tank is emptied and the faecal sludge is taken out, the women carry this filthy waste in overhead baskets, especially in the rural areas. Because of the nature of their work and lack of social security, the family members, including children, suffer from serious health ailments, low income, and menial social status.
Large machines and trucks are being pressed into service by the state and local governments to clean a septic tank or unclog a drain. However, they are expensive and require a high power input and wide roads, which is impossible to provide in congested areas, high-density populated places, and rural and remote locations. Further, such machines in rural areas are scarce forcing exposure of humans in the handling of faecal sludge and emptying leach pits.
Vacuum Tankers are designed for handling 3-5 gm of solid/litre. Whereas leach pits can have a waste density of more than 40-50 gm of solid/litre. Moreover, such machines’ purchasing, operation, and maintenance cost make them unfeasible for the resource-starved local bodies. All these factors compel the residents and other stakeholders to pay the cleaner to enter the blocked manhole and unclog it.
34 people have died while cleaning septic tanks and sewers across the country between 1993-2018, according to data by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK).
Finding a Solution for Manual Scavenging
In 2018, a disturbing picture of a crying child with her hand on the forehead of her dead father changed the career course of a civil hydropower engineer. He started to study the problem of Manual Scavenging from a Civil Engineer’s perspective. He had nearly 3 decades of exposure to sludge and mud pumping and had been a participant in Hydro Power Project Sediment behaviour studies at IRI Roorkee. He soon came to know that no existing machine was appropriate for the task at hand so that the Manual Scavenger could be relieved of his task. It was a problem of sediment handling and the machine had to be compact to address the same. His HydroPower background came to his rescue when he was struck by the idea of Water Hammer as the way to go. It took him some time to build 1st Proof of Concept and he applied for a patent in November 2018.
Due to the application of the Water Hammer principle, the machine (Also named Jalodbust) is compact and requires low power to operate. It can easily reach the narrow lanes and isolated places where even a car can’t reach. It can also handle the dense faecal sludge that large vacuum machines can not handle. Moreover, considering its simplistic design, both male and female workers can easily use the machine.
He 1st presented his idea at a Waste Hackathon at IISc in Sept 2018 and got recognized and a seed grant from HelloScience.io, Denmark. He was offered a 1-year fellowship and support by SOCIAL ALPHA, Bangalore. Meanwhile, this idea was being evolved, and the Proof of Concept tested in the field and feedback gathered from the actual users while his applications for support were rejected by government grant and Institution and continues so till date.
JALODBUST won many recognitions and awards, though yet to find a proper institutional support
- HelloScience.io recognized JALODBUST way back in February 2019 by way of providing a prototyping Grant, continued global promotion, mentoring and recently featuring in their 2020 year-end magazine.
- JALODBUST was included by MoHUA, GoI, New Delhi, into the Directory of Equipment for Septic tank and manhole cleaning.
- JALODBUST won ASME iSHOW 2020 award for hardware led social enterprise for Indian Region which included Award Money, mentoring by industry experts and continued promotion for sponsors.
- JALODBUST got in-kind design sponsorship by Catapult Designs, USA on Nov 2020.
- Figuring in the top 2.5% of the 1200+ applications received by earthtech.io against the mandate for helping 1 Billion lives by 2030, JALODBUST is being promoted pro-bono for fundraising.
- Received ISC-FICCI award for ‘Excellence in Upliftment of Manual Scavengers’ in 2020
- Received Bio-Smart-2020 award from Govt. of Karnataka as the Best Social Enterprise.
- JALODBUST is invited for the Global Directory of WASH Innovations with possible promotion by UNDP.
A unique point Rakesh highlighted is that most of the solutions are devised from outside of the pit. The person who enters the pit lacks the engineering knowledge to provide a solution. His hydraulic engineering and sludge transport expertise helped him provide a totally new approach compared to the prevalent vacuum tank solutions that are not suitable for the newly developed pour-flush Indian scenario.
Taking the innovation a step further, the team, committed to providing sight, smell and splash-free handling of faecal waste and sanitation is working on eliminating human contact right from ‘Flush to farm’. Accordingly, they have designed JALODBUST SaniPreneur for transportation of dense faecal sludge along with its removal from leach pit/ septic tank. JALODBUST SaniPreneur is a mechanised tank for transportation of sludge with powered loading as well as powered unloading requiring human intervention only to flick a switch.
Their next move is to design a compact system to recover the nutritional value of organic waste that is taken out from the leach pits and manholes. This can be used as manure in farms and gardens. Thus Jalodbust is developing a holistic solution that’s based on Circular Economy and Social Impact.
Challenges Faced While Addressing Manual Scavenging
A major challenge that the team has faced since the start is of financial support for upscaling. It has made 2 machines out of a workshop till now, which is an expensive and time-consuming process. While the monetary support and seed funding has come from entities based in the USA, Europe, and Australia, only SOCIAL ALPHA, Bangalore has helped them with seed grant for piloting. The Indian startup ecosystem, Government, and academia have not been able to appreciate the importance of their innovation which has been waiting for support to move out into the market and reach the users. This is ironic considering the strong commitment of the Govt towards eliminating Manual Scavenging, the fact of frequent news reports of people dying while entering the sewage pits and poor health outcomes associated with it.
Considering the cultural taboo around cleanliness, the low social status of cleaners, and the prohibition of manual scavenging by law in India, there is an urgency in comprehensively tackling the problem. Generally, Venture capitalists and investors have a mandate to make money without consideration for social or environmental impact. Unfortunately, such a mindset in fact is quite expensive for society and the future of humanity. But a Social Enterprise like JALODBUST has the mandate to raise profits for the continuation and progress of operations without damaging the environment and enhancing the society. This combined with reliance on pre-existing models for valuation and validation by cash alone is detrimental for the development of social enterprises that need significant financial support to design, develop, and produce machines.
Rakesh was exposed to this predicament quite early in his career way back in 1995 when as Assistant Engineer in the Govt., he found it difficult to build financial justification for an Engineering flood Control Protection works to village land which by revenue records was of very low monetary value, yet it had high social value. He then wrote a technical paper on ‘Flood Control for Profit’. His MBA Dissertation too, though on the implementation of Hydro Power Projects delves on the need for SCBA (Social Cost-Benefit Analysis) as the basis of justification of any project.
He believes that the stakeholders of the startup ecosystem, bureaucracy, and academia should undertake a critical relook to recognise the transformation that Jalodbust will realise. He believes that the overall Indian manufacturing and startup ecosystem is still not prepared to effectively support new inventions rather prefers only those that come pre-validated from western markets. This is an important reason why we can’t find indigenous grown innovative inventions that are designed and exported from India.
India’s sanitation economy is estimated to grow to $63 billion by 2021.– WEF
Transforming Lives Via Empowerment
The Indian manual scavenging community has been discriminated against and let down for ages. Even in the modern-day, many giant machines are used by civic bodies to unclog a drain or empty a septic tank. But still, the people from marginalised communities have to enter them.
Thus they’re justifiably sceptical when the team takes Jalodbust into a congested area for a demonstration. However, the scepticism morphs into a positive outlook when they see it at work. The team envisions to channelise this positivity to transform every manual scavenger into a sanitation entrepreneur.
Jalodbust has received immensely encouraging feedback from the manual scavengers and wise people working in the sanitation ecosystem because they know that no effort on eradication of Manual Scavenging will work unless as an alternative is created to execute the task of faecal sludge handling and sanitation and thus some even calling this innovation as God sent.
Collaborations with multiple entities across the globe are underway to sustain the startups’ pathbreaking work. Such solutions will reap benefits for Indians and the 4.2 billion people across the world who lack access to a toilet with associated safe waste management arrangements. [https://www.un.org/en/observances/toilet-day] Most of them reside in the developing regions of the world like Latin America, South East Asia, and Africa.
The age-old curse of manual scavenging should not continue in modern times. Each one of us must realise and come together to ensure that social innovations are able to empower the people at the bottom-most layer of the social pyramid. It is with taking one extra step to support such Hardware led social enterprises that can release the immense wealth lying under this social Pyramid. A deeper and hard look at the business combined with social good can change the world. And JALODBUST can be one more stepping stone to becoming the Vishwa Guru by providing scour to the millions of workers involved in faecal sludge handling and billions of people who will benefit from the service, environmental benefits and social relief and thus ensure that everyone rises together.
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Article by Subhav Duggal, Team ulaunch.