New Delhi: As manual scavenging deaths mount and protests against the practice gather momentum, two retired Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) engineers from Bangaluru say they have found a way to mitigate the risks associated with sewer treatment that could save lives of sanitation workers.
Dr K Balakrishnan and Germiya Ongolu have designed and developed equipment that would automate sewer and septic tank cleaning work and eliminate the need for manual entry. The two former HAL engineers have designed four mechanical devices that counter the major threats inside a sewer and even clean blockage and obstructions inside sewer lines.
The four devices include Sewer Croc and Robotic Camera System, a water jet-powered device that cuts through blockages in sewer pipes of varying diameter; Overflow Detection and Lid Opening Indicator, a sensor-based system that monitors overflows inside a manhole and alerts the concerned authority on the event of the same; Lid Based Gas Detector Module, a device that attaches to manhole lids, assesses concentration of poisonous gases inside before opening the lid and filters the dangerous gases out while ensuring zero leakage; and Sewer Line Gas Detection Through Amphibian that can detect trapped poisonous gases inside a sewer line up to a length of 30 metres.
Gas Detector Module (photo credit: Sanitor website)
Balakrishnan, 70, worked in HAL for 38 years and retired as general manager of helicopter design in 2008. After his retirement, he attended an event organised by Bezwada Wilson, founder and national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan, who has been spearheading the fight against the practice of manual scavenging for years. “He was trying his best to solve the problem, to make sure that more lives aren’t lost,” Balakrishnan said. “We were moved by this. We thought we should do something for the society and the people who risk their lives doing this job. Being engineers, we thought we could contribute to solving the problem,” he added.
Ongolu, 60, was a systems specialist at HAL. He was involved in designing the devices when Balakrishnan started in 2017. Ongolu retired from HAL in June, 2018 and officially joined Balakrishnan’s company.
Balakrishnan and Ongolu now serve as chief executive officer and chief technological officer of Ajantha Technologies, a Bangaluru-based company that Balakrishnan founded and registered as a professional body in December 2013. They had worked together in HAL for decades and knew each other well, so they felt their experience in design and engineering would help them solve the sewer problem. “We have the same frequency for ideas. We believe in the same things,” Balakrishnan said. They contacted Wilson in 2017 to see how they could help.
K Balakrishnan (L) and Germiya Ongolu.
“Wilson introduced us to officials from the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board in August 2017. We needed their inputs on what they were doing to solve the problem, what were their obstacles and what they needed,” said Balakrishnan. “The staff showed us everything and told us what kind of devices they needed.”
In less than a year, Balakrishnan and Ongolu designed and developed four devices that could detect poisonous gases inside the sewer line, clean blockages and obstructions and even alert authorities in case of an overflow. The two were in Delhi and attended the protest against manual scavenging at Jantar Mantar on Tuesday. Wilson said devices like the ones Balakrishnan and Ongolu have designed will ensure that no Dalit loses his or her life in a sewer again.
“The gas detector will tell you the composition and intensity of poisonous gases like Methane, Carbon Monoxide, Hydrogen Sulphide inside the sewer so that it can be safely filtered out,” Ongolu said. “The Sewer Croc, on the other hand, will pulverise the debris and waste inside the sewer pipe. The water jet spins the turbine at high speed and propels the device forward along the lenfth of the sewer pipe. The cutting blades of the turbine clears out blockages and sediments. The device has been designed for pipes with diameters of 200, 250, 300 and 400 millimetres,” Balakrishnan said.
The Amphibian is submarine-like device, said Balakrishnan. According to him, the device can travel inside a sewer pipe from manhole to manhole and detect presence of poisonous gases. The device has several layers of filters that allow only gases and not sewage to pass through.
Amphibian (photo credit: Sanitor website)
Ajantha Technologies works with a manufacturing agency called Sanitor. “We design and develop, Sanitor manufactures the devices,” Balakrishnan said. Sixty-five percent of Sanitor shares are owned by Dalits. The company has signed memorandum of understanding for manufacturing transfer of technology with Ajantha Technologies.
On 4 June, 2018, Balakrishnan and Ongolu held a demonstration of their devices for the Telangana government, in presence of Information Technology minister K.T. Rama Rao. “We recreated a sewer with a transparent poly-carbonate tube, so that we could see the device functioning inside the tube, and we also simulated sewer obstructions, debris and waste,” Balakrishnan said.
The water jet-powered Sewer Croc cut through the obstructions and flushed the tube clean. The authorities were pleased with the results. Balakrishnan and Ongolu also did field trial of Sewer Croc in Lake View park, Khairatabad. “The trial impressed the government. They are willing to put in a purchase order for Sewer Croc.
Sewer Croc device (photo credit: Sanitor website)
The devices are currently in prototype stage and Ajantha Technologies has received interest from authorities in Vizag. They will also showcase all their four devices in an exhibition in Delhi in October.
Balakrishnan and Ongolu believe that mechanisation of sanitation work is a must. “It’s a matter of shame for our country that people have to go down sewers to clean it and lose their lives in the process. It’s a shame for us.” Ongolu said.
“Even basic safety is not there. And only one section of the society does this work,” Balakrishnan said. “We dump everything in the sewers: plastic, sanitary napkins, other household waste. We must ensure the sewer lines are clear. If only authorities removed blockages and made checks for poisonous gases, so many lives would not be lost,” he added.
They say they not only want to address the problem, but to use their devices as a preventive measure. Balakrishnan and Ongolu believe engineers and scientists in India should have tried to solve this problem much earlier. “There is no value of life in India, nobody cares,” Balakrishnan said. “People consider sanitation work a filthy job, they think it’s the job of downtrodden people. People are not keen. Nobody wants to get into it and alleviate the problem. We feel, after retirement, it’s time to pay back the society in some way or the other. We strongly feel, in this area, we can save a lot of lives,” he added.