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A social revolutionary who put sanitation within reach of India’s masses

Shoma A. Chatterji pays tribute to Bindeshwar Pathak who transformed toilets from a rich man’s luxury to the working man’s basic necessity in India, and showed the way to rescue scavengers from their sub-human existence

Bindeshwar Pathak, who passed away recently at the age of 80, was a man with a mission. He has redefined the lives of people, providing sanitation facilities which were hitherto unavailable to millions of people in India. He was the founder of Sulabh Shauchalaya (pour-flush water seal toilets with twin pits for on-site disposal of human excreta). His efforts were aimed not only at bettering the lives of people who were earlier forced to use the unhygienic public toilets that dot India’s towns and cities, but also at giving a new identity and dignity to millions of scavengers.

“I studied various designs and evolved a suitable technological option – Sulabh Shauchalaya – to serve as an alternative to bucket privies and thus stop open air defecation,” said Pathak. “This is a socio-culturally acceptable and affordable system. Users can operate and maintain it easily. It provides health benefits through safe disposal of human excreta on site,” he explained.

The entry of the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation into the neglected world of sanitation in the year 1970 was a turning point in India’s nearly non-existent sanitation programme. A committed team of sociologists, scientists, engineers, doctors, journalists and sundry public-spirited people came forward to forge a stupendous network of 50,000 volunteers ably led by Pathak. According to Pathak, “Technology alone is not enough. People’s perceptions and attitudes on sanitation must change. Public awareness and community participation must happen. This can happen only when there is a massive national awareness followed by a strong and nation-wide citizens’ movement like the one spearheaded by Sulabh International Social Service Organisation.”

Sulabh closely worked with national agencies like NBO, CBRI, HUDCO and Ministries of Welfare, Rural Development, Government of India and All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Kolkata. It restored the human rights and dignity of around 50,000 scavengers, set up 10,00,000 household toilets and 4000 community toilet blocks, constructed over 100 human-excreta based bio-gas plants and made 240 town scavenging-free. Over 10 million people use the sanitation facilities created by Sulabh every day. In parallel, the Sulabh Institute is engaged in developing sustainable technologies in the areas of low-cost sanitation, biogas generation from human and vegetable waste, low-cost waste water treatment, solid waste management, environment and pollution study, and demonstrating and disseminating this technology.

Bindeshwar Pathak was born on April 2, 1943 in the district of Vaishali, Bihar. The author of several books on sanitation, including Road to Freedom, Pathak held PhD and DLitt degrees in Sociology. His personality was a fine blend of social scientist, engineer, administrator and institution builder. With single-minded determination, he directed his expertise, his knowledge and his creative energies to enrich and empower the depressed classes. He is recognised as an international expert on low-cost sanitation – design, construction and maintenance of safe, hygienic human waste disposal systems, public toilets, energy generation from human waste and its complete recycling, improvement of health and hygiene, rural development, etc.

In 1996, Habitat II in Istanbul picked Sulabh’s technology as one of the best in global sanitation practices. The United Nations Centre for Human Settlement recognised it as the best cost-effective technology out of 1100 entries from 125 countries. Sulabh was invited to help out neighbouring countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. It planned and executed programmes in collaboration with the International Water and Sanitation Centre, Loughborough University of Technology UK, through the Water Engineering and Development Centre. The technology innovatively designed and modified over the years has been evaluated by international agencies like the UNDP, World Bank, UNICEF and WHO and recommended for global replication, especially in developing countries. Agencies like the Overseas Development Agency of the British Government and European Economic Community have collaborated with Sulabh.

Sulabh also established an International Museum of Toilets in New Delhi. The Museum has a rare collection of artefacts, pictures and objects detailing the historic evolution of toilets since 2500 BC. Among its recent activities is the compilation of an updated encyclopedia on sanitation. Pathak has been honoured nationally and internationally for his exemplary work. Among the awards he received are the Padma Bhushan in 1991, the International Saint Francis Prize for Environment in 1992, the Bombay Citizens Award in 1992, the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Award in 1994, the NRI Gold Award in 1994 and the Babu Jagjivan Ram Award for abolishing scavenging in 1997. He also won the United Nations Environment Award in 2004.

Over the Past 50 years, Pathak transformed the toilet from a rich man’s luxury to the working man’s basic necessity in India. By showing the way to do away with the sub-human practice of handling excreta manually, he led a social crusade to shake off the worst vestiges of the past. He transformed the lives of thousands of scavengers imprisoned in humiliation, penury and indignity. He was numbered among those considered India’s best hope for a dynamic and socially responsive society.

(The writer is a senior journalist and film historian based in Kolkata.)