(Ma Xuejing / China Daily)
One stark incident taught Bindeshwar Pathak, the father of the Sulabh sanitation movement in India, how something as taken for granted as a toilet can be a matter of life and death.
It was in the late 1960s when he was in Bettiah, an underdeveloped village in caste system-ridden Bihar state.
Pathak witnessed a rampaging bull gore a boy to death. Yet nobody came to his rescue.
The shocked young man was told the victim belonged to an “unclean” or “untouchable” community. Touching him would have defiled the rescuer.
The boy’s community traditionally supported themselves by cleaning privies, which meant collecting excreta from cesspools manually and carting them away.
Pathak began to realize the enormity of this social tragedy when he had another eye-opener. He saw a young woman being forced by her in-laws and husband to work as a cesspool cleaner.
"She was crying bitterly, not at all ready to go,” he recalls. “(When) I went and intervened, her mother-in-law asked one question: ‘If she doesn’t clean bucket toilets, which is our profession, what she will do from tomorrow? She has no alternatives and is destined to do this job for her whole life.’”
"It was a very, very tragic situation,” the septuagenarian socialist says somberly. “A person once born as an untouchable would die as an untouchable. There is no (way) for them to escape from the social prison where they have to remain their whole life. One can be released from prison one day but not from this prison created by society.”
Mahatma Gandhi had started the sanitation movement in India in the 1920s. The dual goals were to end defecation in the open and manual cleaning of human excreta by human scavengers, so that the concept of “untouchability” would end.
But Gandhi’s work was left incomplete and in 1968, when his followers were looking for meaningful ways to pay tribute in his birth centenary year, Pathak was propelled towards the sanitation movement by a leader of the Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee.
Saryu Prasad, who headed the committee, urged him to leave home and stay with the untouchable community in Bettiah to advocate their rights.
The sociology student, though a follower of Gandhi, found it unthinkable at first. Pathak was a Brahmin, the top caste in India’s caste hierarchy, and his family and friends threatened to ostracize him.
But the boy’s death and subsequent public reaction made him change his mind. After a prolonged stay in Bettiah, he founded his non-profit organization for better sanitation and social reform in 1970. Today, it is known as the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation.
The first shot fired in the toilet revolution was finding a technology which would be “appropriate, affordable, indigenous and culturally acceptable”.
He discarded the sewerage system introduced by the British rulers of colonial India as unfeasible. It required huge investment, both for construction and maintenance, as well as an enormous quantity of water for the flush system.
"Therefore, out of 7,933 towns and cities in India, only 270 have sewerage treatment plants,” Pathak points out. “In 900 towns and cities, drains have been laid without any sewerage treatment plant.
"This technology could not be acceptable on a large scale, not only in India but in all three continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America.”
He found a better model in Gandhi’s efforts.
"Mahatma Gandhi had suggested that houses be built from locally available materials, preferably procured within a radius of 5 kilometers. Sulabh toilets can be built with local materials like brick, stone, burnt clay rings, wood and even empty drums.”
Though not an engineer, Pathak developed his own unique toilet system under the brand name Sulabh Shauchalaya — meaning affordable toilet.
The innovation comprises two pits to hold the excreta. When the first is full, the system switches over to the second one. The waste in the full pit then converts to bio-fertilizer which can be used for agriculture.
The Sulabh flush compost toilet has several models. While the most upscale one costs Rs 55,000 ($919), the cheapest is Rs 1,500.
"The Sulabh Shauchalaya also helps to economize the use of water, which is not only the need of the country but the entire world,” Pathak emphasizes.
While the conventional toilet requires 10 liters of water, Sulabh toilets need only 1 liter.
"Most importantly, manual scavenging is not required to clean them,” he says with pride. “Anybody can clean the pits because the excreta have already been converted into manure. So the Sulabh toilet has become a tool of social change.”
The first official trial of the toilets took place in Bihar’s Arrah town.
Despite some opposition, Pathak was allowed to convert 200 toilets and the success added a new course in the history of sanitation in India.
Today, Sulabh has converted or constructed 1.3 million household toilets. In addition, it has built and is running 8,000 community toilet complexes in 25 states and four union territories.
The community toilets run on the principle of pay and use, charging a mere Rs 1 to 3. They are owned by the local bodies which provide the land and money for the construction. The revenue collected from users is ploughed back into maintenance and upkeep.
Though the toilet revolution is gathering steam, the work left is still immense. According to the 2011 census, latrine facilities were still a pipe dream in an overwhelming 69.3 percent of rural areas and 18.6 percent urban areas. Nearly 50 percent of India’s 122.9 million households practiced open defecation.
"At a rough estimate, we require at least 100 million household toilets to prevent defecation in the open,” Pathak says. “The government has set 2022 as the (date) for (ending) defecation in the open.”
For want of something as basic as a toilet, Indian society has been paying an enormous price.
"Apart from causing mortality and morbidity and polluting water, poor sanitation in India has harmful effects on many aspects of human welfare,” Pathak says. “Education, mobility, use of public space, life choices, and, ultimately livelihoods, incomes and general well being.”
When there is no sanitation, it curtails people’s time, movement and choices.
"Children miss school, particularly girls fall behind in class due to illness.
"Women especially face a lot of problems because they (can relieve themselves) only either before sunrise or after sunset (when it is dark).”
The Sulabh toilets can be a tool for directly contributing to the economy.
The public toilet complexes can generate biogas. The biogas plant design has been approved by the ministry of non-conventional energy sources and there are 200 such plants, producing 1 cubic foot of biogas from per person excreta per day.
The gas is used for cooking and electricity generation. Sulabh has also developed a technology to run dual fuel generators on biogas alone without any diesel.
The recipient of several international awards, Pathak’s most triumphant moments however are people-oriented.
One such moment was in 1988 when he led a group of night soil cleaners to a famous temple.
"Earlier, (they) were not permitted inside,” he describes the incident. “But after my assurance to abide by all the rules and regulations, they were allowed to go in.
"It was indeed a sight to behold — 200 ‘untouchable’ scavengers praying side by side with the high priests of the temple, Brahmins and other upper castes.”
Founder, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation
2013: French Senate honors Bindeshwar Pathak with the Legend of Planet award
2009: Receives the Stockholm Water Prize from the Stockholm International Water Institute, Sweden
2007: Receives the 2006 Energy Globe award from Brussels-based Energy Globe at the European Parliament
The Sulabh movement abroad
We have built five public toilet complexes with biogas plants in Kabul (Afghanistan). Commissioned in 2007 … all toilets remained functional during the severest winter when the temperature went down to –30 C. We have also built toilet complexes in Bhutan and are going to start in Uganda.
Telling the toilet story
The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets (in New Delhi) displays objects related to toilets and their history from 3rd century BC to the present day. It creates awareness about toilets and sanitation and contributes, even if in a small measure, to the realization of the Millennium Development Goal — toilets for all.
Sulabh as an educator
Our Sulabh Public School has about 430 students in grades one to 10. In each class, 60 percent of students are from the scavengers’ community. This proves parents’ desire to educate their children today overcomes any other bias.
The Sulabh philosophy
Self-development, making a difference in others’ lives by helping them, and Gandhi’s principle of non-violence.
Date of birth: April 2, 1943
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