January 12, 2018 / 11:46 AM / 9 days ago

From coconut plucking to sewer cleaning - Indian startups solve challenges

MUMBAI, Jan 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From the manual cleaning of sewers to plucking coconuts from trees - authorities in southern India are inviting startups to find innovative ways to help those carrying out society’s dirtiest and most dangerous jobs.

The Kerala Startup Mission, a government agency, is backing potential social entrepreneurs in the southern state with funding and partnerships, said Chief Executive Saji Gopinath.

One of these is the “Bandicoot”, a four-limbed robot built by Genrobotics, that can go down manholes and clean sewers, a job that has long been forced on the Dalit community, the lowest ranked in India’s caste system.

India has passed several laws to end the practice, yet there are an estimated one million manual scavengers in the country. Scores die every year from toxic fumes in the sewers, according to activists.

“It is unfortunate that even now, men have to go into sewers to remove blockages and clean them. It is so dangerous and undignified,” said Gopinath.

“With the Bandicoot, we can convert manholes into roboholes,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India’s $154-billion software services industry is renowned for providing services to banks and insurance firms, with startups riding the wave of mobile apps and e-commerce.

The Kerala Startup Mission, on the other hand, focuses on solutions for sections of the population who may have less access to technology, or are otherwise vulnerable, said Gopinath.

These solutions must also have business potential to be viable, he said, citing the example of an automated machine to pluck coconuts, the crop for which the coastal state is famed.

Manual plucking of coconuts is a risky, low-paid job that few people want to do; the machine solves the problem, he said.

“Some of these problems are unique to our country, so we need local solutions. But many of them are also common across the developing world, so there is a large potential market for the solutions,” Gopinath said.

Kerala will soon host a United Nations Tech Innovation Lab, aimed at finding ways to meet the Sustainable Development Goals aimed at conquering poverty, inequality and other international woes by a 2030 deadline, Gopinath said.

These labs are also in Egypt and Finland. The Kerala lab will focus on water and sanitation, sustainable agriculture and eco-friendly mobility, he said.

The Bandicoot will be deployed in Kerala soon, with enquiries coming in from other states, said Genrobotics founder, Vimal Govind MK.

“We wish to end manual scavenging with our product. It’s possible to address many social and environmental problems with technology,” he said.

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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