Moved by his childhood experiences in native Bihar, Bindeshwar Pathak decided to fight against caste prejudices and brought to India a sanitary revolution.
A Brahmin by birth and a firm believer in God, Bindeshwar Pathak had narrowly missed a first class in his graduation examination that would have helped him grab a college lecturer’s job. He tried being a school teacher, a pay-roll clerk and even a street salesman of his grandfather’s bottles of home-cure mixture. But nothing seemed to work. Married at an early age of 22, responsibilities doubled and Pathak soon found himself doing small jobs to keep the family afloat. Once, he even had to sell his wife’s jewellery. All this sounds like a recipe of failure but then hang on for a bit and read ahead! Bindeshwar Pathak today owns Sulabh International – an organisation worth 2750 million Indian Rupees where 60,000 associate members work “with” him as he insists.
Moved by the pain of scavengers and their inhuman task, he founded Sulabh International in 1970. Today, Sulabh International employs people all across India and after paying them salaries, has enough left for research, education and training. Now people in many parts of India are willing to pay to use toilets. There are Sulabh toilet complexes in 26 states of India and three neighbouring countries. About 640 towns in India have become scavenger-free. Over 100,000 scavengers or ‘untouchables’ have been liberated from the task of manually removing human excreta, a task they had been condemned to for centuries.
Mahatma Gandhi had once remarked, “Sanitation is more important than Independence.” Taking inspiration from his sayings, Pathak’s journey has indeed come a long way. Every morning, the Sulabh team at Delhi starts its day with the customary morning prayer followed by thoughts for the day and a motivational speech by the founder-owner himself.
Pathak also runs a school for the children of the ‘untouchables’ where English medium courses are taught to enhance the children’s self-esteem. A research wing at the Sulabh campus constantly develops related technologies. There are bio-gas generators, water purifiers and compost granulators. There is also a unique toilet museum at the Sulabh International campus in Delhi to make people comfortable enough to discuss the sanitation issue. It educates people about the history of sanitation in India and the rest of the world. Pathak has also been at the forefront when it comes to getting appropriate legislations on sanitation passed in India’s Parliament and numerous state assemblies.
Though his work in the field for over three decades has been recognised by the world, proper sanitation still remains a challenge for India and the rest of the majority world despite longstanding efforts of governments and communities at improving coverage. Both of India’s largest political parties – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Indian National Congress promised to make India open-defecation free in their 2014 election manifestos. The increasing recognition of sanitation as a major challenge for the country follows a growing body of evidence that shows how India’s appalling standard of sanitation is responsible for its poor developmental outcomes. Almost 82 per cent of the one billion people defecating in the open live in just 10 countries. India tops the list with around 597 million people, says a 2014 World Health Organization and UNICEF report. Despite the Central Rural Sanitation Programme, the Total Sanitation Campaign and the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, the situation remains terrible. About half of Indian households defecate in the open and open defecation has remained one of the major causes of child malnutrition and diseases.
Pathak believes that behind everything that happens in the world lies a strong reason and a hidden force which is accountable for the happening. Thus, he wades back into his past, how events and incidents shaped his life, how he set about to realise Gandhi’s dream of removing manual scavenging and untouchability.
A landowner from Bihar, Pathak, who has been awarded the Padma Bhushan (1991), one of India’s highest civilian honours, and the Stockholm Water Prize (2009), says that being a Brahmin boy, he wasn’t allowed to touch ‘some’ people because her grandmother wouldn’t approve of it. She would sprinkle water on the stretches through which such people had passed. Being a kid, he found it very abrupt and out of sheer curiosity, he once touched one such woman intentionally for which he was severely reprimanded. “My grandmother made me eat cow dung and cow urine to purify myself,” recalls Pathak as he recalls many other incidents which shaped his life and turned him into one of the most successful social entrepreneurs of the country.
Born on April 2, 1943, and raised in Bihar, Pathak earned MA degrees in Sociology and English. His PhD was on “Liberation of scavengers through low cost sanitation.” In the month of June in 2013, he received the Legend of Planet award from the French Senate in Paris, ahead of the World Environment Day.
In 1969, Pathak landed in Patna and joined the Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee as an English-to-Hindi and Hindi-to-English translator. For four months, he worked without pay, following which his seniors, impressed with the “bright” boy’s work, fixed his salary at 200 Indian Rupees. He was later transferred to restore the body’s human rights cell. This sub-committee was formed with an objective of providing decent living to the scavengers’ community, called the untouchables before Independence. His job was to come up with an alternate sanitary system in the country that would help the community do away with the practice of manual cleaning of human faeces. It was there that Pathak was introduced to the Bhangi Mukti (liberate manual scavengers) Movement and Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas on sanitation and human scavenging.
During his time in the scavengers’ colony, two events changed his world view. “I saw a young bride being forced to clean toilets before her henna had faded. Her piteous cries wrung my heart but her mother-in-law told me not to interfere. She asked me how else would the girl earn her living when the society would not let her do anything else. I can still hear her cries in my head,” says Pathak. This incident made Pathak realise the importance of integrating scavengers into the mainstream by breaking caste barriers. Another accident which shook him to the core was when he saw a young boy from the so-called lowest caste succumbing to his injuries after being hit by a wild bull. He died not because of his injuries but because nobody came forward to take him to the hospital. By the time Pathak reached the spot, the boy was already dead.
“Stopping defecation in the open will not only mean better health for people but will also curtail incidents of rapes in rural India,” says Pathak, explaining why he decided to build 106 toilets, one in every house, in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, after the rape and hanging of two girls in the month of May. “Girls and women in rural households without toilets have to go out into the fields at the dead of the night to relieve themselves. Very often, they are targeted by offenders at that moment,” he adds.
The construction of the toilets at Badaun has been completed by Sulabh International and they have been handed over to people for use recently. The finest endorsement of his success has come out of an experiment started in Alwar, Rajasthan where Sulabh runs a training programme for women who were once scavengers. They are paid 1500 Indian Rupees per month as they learn to make and market ready-to-eat snacks. The products have found ready acceptance. Pathak beams with pride: “Once their shadows were said to pollute. Now their hands make food. Once no one would eat with them and now people love to eat what they make.”
It is hard to imagine life without toilets but it is a reality for 2.6 billion people, 40 per cent of the world’s population who still do not have access to toilets or latrine. This is the reason why sanitation is one of the key United Nations Millennium Development Goal targets. It has been often seen that the lack of sanitation facilities is the main cause of some life-threatening diseases. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised on the need to build more toilets and spoke about this on Independence Day this year, urging private corporations and Members of Parliament to pitch in to build more toilets, especially for girl students in schools so that they would not drop out of school.
Sulabh International insists on advance payments but seeks no subsidies, donations, loans or grants. Orders are followed in quick succession and the entire model always remains self-sustaining. Honesty, ethics, integrity, morality and commitment to help others have always remained the working force behind Pathak’s journey. He is happy with his achievements to some extent but believes that there is a lot left to be done. Pathak has the vision of a philosopher and the undying zeal of a missionary. He is an icon of the global sanitation movement and social entrepreneurship who has made a real difference to the lives of millions of people.