In a bid to eliminate the need for manual scavenging, the Centre on Wednesday launched a challenge asking innovators, NGOs, research institutions, companies and cities to propose technology and business solutions to clean urban sewers and septic tanks without human entry.

The challenge will be part of the Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention to be held on October 18 this year, according to an official statement from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. The objectives are to identify technological and business process innovations, endorse viable business models suitable for cities of different sizes and geographies, and pilot test shortlisted technologies and solutions in select project cities and bridge the gap between innovators or manufacturers and beneficiaries such as urban local bodies and citizens.

Activists working with manual scavengers expressed some scepticism about the proposal. The machines to clean sewers and septic tanks are already available globally, but they need to be adapted to Indian conditions, and the government needs to show the political will to actually use the technology on the ground on a large scale, they said.

“Why is the government asking others to fix a problem that it has completely neglected for so many years? By asking individuals, companies and NGOs to submit proposals for an award, the government is washing its hands of its own responsibilities,” said Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan.

He pointed out that a few small scale technology projects by NGOs and universities already exist in various parts of the country, but there is no nationwide government department or agency with the responsibility to eradicate manual scavenging. “This challenge creates the illusion that solutions are available through business models. It’s a problem when you make sanitation into a business.”

While he appreciated the motivation behind the technology challenge, Ashif Shaikh, convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, agreed that it was simply not enough to solve the problem unless the government showed greater political will. “We are doing a study documenting about 300 manual scavenging deaths, half before and half after the 2013 law [The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013],” said Mr. Shaikh, who is also on the central committee monitoring the implementation of the Act. “The only difference on the ground is that the government now gives compensation when a manual scavenger dies, but there is still little action to prevent such deaths in the first place.”

He says that neither contractors nor municipalities are providing the equipment and logistical and medical support mandated by the law. “Even as we consider technology solutions, there is a need to fulfil the provisions of the law already there. Otherwise, all the innovation will not result in change on the ground,” he said.

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