Genrobotics' robot scavenger takes over the outlawed practice of manual scavenging that still claims lives in India, and is spread across 85 urban local bodies across 17 states and three union territories in India
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Genrobotics Co-founders (from left): Arun George, Vimal Govind MK, Rashid K, and Nikhil NP (seated) want to build robots to meet all clean-tech requirements
Image: Madhu Kapparath; light painting: Kapil Kashyap
Arun George | 29, Nikhil NP | 29, Rashid K | 28, Vimal Govind MK | 28 Co-founders, Genrobotics
In December 2022, in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha, Ramdas Athawale, the minister of state for social justice and empowerment, said 352 people died cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the country over the last five years. The website of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a non-profit constituted to eliminate the practice of manual scavenging, says this number is much higher. It estimates that there are 7.7 lakh sewer cleaners and 36,176 railway sewer cleaners in India, and there have been 1,760 deaths reported since 2000. This is despite manual scavenging, a casteist profession (usually are Dalits assigned to it), being outlawed in India.
The death of three such manual scavengers in Kerala in 2016 prompted four engineering students from the University of Calicut to use their skills and find a solution to the inhuman practice that requires women and men going down sewers to clean waste, including human waste.
Arun George, 29, Nikhil NP, 29, Rashid K, 28, and Vimal Govind MK, 28, co-founded Genrobotics in 2017. The social enterprise started with a prototype called Bandicoot, a robotic scavenger that can be used to clean sewers. They have since expanded their product offerings to include solutions for the health care, sanitation, oil and gas sectors. “We need to do a lot more in sanitation to solve bigger problems. One of our primary objectives going forward is to build robots to meet all clean-tech requirements,” says Vimal.
At present, Genrobotics is working with about 85 urban local bodies across 17 states and three union territories in India. Bandicoot, Rashid explains, could clean up to 10 to 12 sewers in a single shift, taking about 30 to 40 minutes per sewer/manhole.
In the course of their operations, the co-founders also understood that people undertake manual scavenging for survival because they have no other means to earn a living. So they reworked their initial Bandicoot prototype to make it easier sanitation workers to operate. To date, as per the founders, they have rehabilitated more than 3,000 people who were into manual scavenging. Those who cannot be rehabilitated as robot operators usually find other jobs in the municipality, since local civic bodies are almost always short-staffed, says Vimal.
Genrobotics, which the founders say earned close to ₹20 crore in revenue in FY22, with a profit of close to ₹6 crore, is backed by investors, including Unicorn India Ventures, Rajan Anandan, Zoho and Anand Mahindra.
“We liked the passion of the founders,” says Anil Joshi, founder and managing partner, Unicorn India Ventures. He says that while there is an increasing acceptance among government officials in India for their products, the market for these robots, much like the problems they solve, is global.
The other products of Genrobotics include G-Gaiter, a gait trainer for paraplegics undergoing rehab; Willboar, which cleans large tanks in sanitation, oil-and-gas, and chemical industries, and G-Beetle, which cleans glass facades of skyscrapers. The enterprise is now expanding overseas, including to the UK, UAE, Malaysia, Indonesia, and a few African countries.