Taking on the daunting task of dealing with Mumbai monsoons, Riyaan Bakhda, a Class 12 student of Dhirubhai Ambani International School, has not only been spreading awareness about disaster management in the city slums but has taken a step forward by building a landslide detection device.
“The vulnerability of the location and weak construction of the self-engineered shanties leaves hundreds of thousands of members of slums defenseless during monsoons. Since the slums are predominantly illegal, government intervention has been minimal, and aids from NGOs and citizens are not sufficient when the people don’t know how to protect themselves. I wanted to change that,” says the 16-year-old to The Better India.
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Riyaan’s journey to make a lasting impact and change lives began five years ago at an international robotics competition.
“We were a team of 6 students from various schools, representing India at the Lego League Robotics competition in Spain. We had designed a working prototype called Strata that could detect subterranean soil movements to predict upcoming landslides on unprotected mountain slopes. It was an important project, and when we won the second place, I decided to take it forward and continue to perfect the device with more sophisticated technology,” says Riyaan, who spent the next four years researching and consulting with industry experts to improve upon the device.
A critical part of the process was also to take on-ground inputs of people who had survived such landslides, especially in the hilly slums of Mumbai.
“The improved version had to be more nuanced both in terms of the technology as well as its on-ground functionality, which is why, consulting with experts like various geologists, civil engineers and soil experts from L&T and Railway officials, while also understanding the problems of the inhabitants of the target areas, was crucial. After all that, I was able to create it by 2019,” he adds.
Explaining the workings of the device, he says, “Subsoil movements occur just before landslides, around 1 to 2 meters below the surface. The device uses an array of gyroscopic sensors and math to quantify that underground soil movement accurately and predict landslides, in time. To maintain accuracy, the improved technology identifies patterns in the underground soil movement which are typical to landslides, while being trained to ignore any other interference from other factors like underground water flow or human activity.”
The improved version of Strata is designed to be minimalist and economical, because as per Riyaan, for it to be effective, large numbers of the device are required to be installed at several locations. A single device, along with installation costs around Rs 5,000.
He adds that in the next few months, he is also working towards connecting the device to the internet so that it can be remotely controlled. And, one of the first areas to experience its benefits through a prototype test is the Sakinaka slum in Andheri East, Mumbai.
“There is also a possibility of installing Strata near the Railway lines in hills and PK Shesha, an official from the department is sharing his guidance with me on the same. But, before that, I am working on getting a patent for it, so the installation procedure can eventually begin,” he shares.
While the competition was an important push for the project, he adds that a few accidents further motivated him towards the cause.
“Initially, I was involved in developing the device for mountainous regions of the city. But, then I had to witness an unfortunate event of electrocution of a 22-year-old man near my building. Then, I saw the video of a 3-year-old falling into the sewer and then also read about the Malad wall collapse. All that piled up together and I realised that I was done being a spectator, I had to do something to try and change the scenario,” adds Riyaan.
It was at that time that he decided to launch the Varsha Initiative, to raise awareness about disaster management, especially floods and landslides, among the residents of Mumbai slums. Under this initiative, he has helped more than 200 students and thousands of individuals living in the slums of Juhu, Vikhroli and Andheri.
To do so, he began to conduct workshops in various schools of Juhu and Vile Parle slums, and in the landslide-prone Bhandup and Vikhroli slums. The sessions included awareness on diseases like Malaria, Dengue, Cholera, Typhoid, and Gastroenteritis, and precautionary measures.
“Monsoon diseases like septicemia and leptospirosis are also prevalent in these areas, and students are taught about their symptoms and prevention. Additionally, we teach them to avoid exposed electrical wires on the roads and slums. At the end of the sessions, students are also given First Aid kits that they can carry home on the condition that they will spread the knowledge gained here, with the rest of the community. They are the agents of change,” says Riyaan.
From distributing graphic posters and pamphlets containing emergency numbers in English, Hindi, and Marathi to in-depth workshops on safe-living, his Varsha Initiative till date has reached out to almost 2,000 slum residents.
Speaking about the feat and his plans, the aspiring robotics engineer says, “Being a grown-up has nothing to do with age, but with the initiative to take responsibility. Every single one of us has the potential to use our knowledge to change lives. I am doing the best I can. But, for me, this is just the beginning.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)