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Gandhi vs Gandhi: Why Swachh Bharat needs scavenger robots

columns Updated: Oct 04, 2015 13:43 IST
N Madhavan
N Madhavan
Hindustan Times
Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

MLA Noida Vimla Batham, cleaning the surroundings as a part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan anniversary at village Gijhore, sector 53, Noida.(Sunil Ghosh/ HT Photo)

New Delhi

I write this at the weekend after October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, thinking of the delicious ironies that fate can offer.

The leader of India’s Independence movement was passionate about cleanliness and hygiene and also about removing untouchability suffered by Harijans (now called Dalits), among whom were scavengers by caste, considered the lowliest in the Indian social hierarchy. Gandhi was keen to end manual scavenging, and worked to end the practice of people carrying nightsoil on their heads.

The launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) movement has at its heart an ambitious programme that involves building 130 million toilets across India, with a spending of R 196,000 crore. Most of these would be in rural areas where 67% of households have no toilets linked to homes.

But there is a problem. A report in HT quotes Sangita Vyas of the Research Institute of Compassionate Economics who says many in rural India believe that the kind of toilets the government promotes are impure. “There is concern over what will happen when the pits of these toilets fill up, since emptying a pit is associated with manual scavenging.”

In 1993 India passed a law that wanted demolition of all dry toilets. The law also banned manual scavenging. However, nearly 800,000 toilets in India were still cleaned manually, according to the 2011 census.

Now, if real people can’t do this, who will?

We can now offer a 21st Century answer: robots.

Robotics are gaining ground in manufacturing, and the Internet of Things, under which even robots can have Internet addresses that can be used to make them move and monitor from remote centres. That makes it even more exciting.

Consider the strange fact that Gandhi was not in favour of automation.

“The supreme consideration is man. The machine should not tend to make atrophied the limbs of man,” Gandhi had said.

But then, effectively designed robots may be ideal to help India achieve his other “supreme consideration” – of ending manual scavenging while dramatically improving conditions for cleanliness and hygiene.

This is what I would call a delicious irony of fate, but one in which there is a blessing hidden in what Gandhi spoke of as if it was a curse. But then, Gandhi had also said: “What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such.”

India’s young engineers are already at work in some robotics firms – and they need to design scavenger robots that can revolutionise India’s rural landscape.

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