Human Rights with Sanitation
Ever since independence (and from a long time before that), people in India have been appalled with the abuse of the caste system, especially the poor treatment meted out to “untouchables.” As usual, well-meaning people think they can change attitudes by passing laws. And so, India has The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, which punishes the preaching and practice of untouchability. Needless to say, the act made little difference on the ground in terms of changing people’s attitudes.
There is no dearth of angry activism on this issue in India and outside, and as is the nature of all angry activism, the message is so loud that people close their ears and ignore it. Meanwhile, India’s politicians are more interested in maintaining the status quo and milking caste divisions for votes instead of working for the welfare of the “untouchables.” In this hopeless scenario, one man is running a silent revolution with a lot of success.
This is the story of Bindeshwar Pathak, whose life transformed as a young man in the 60s, when he was told by the General Secretary of a Gandhian organization that it was Gandhi’s unfinished work to remove the profession of manual scavenging from India and liberate the untouchables. The General Secretary told the young Pathak that he had to finish Gandhi’s mission and added, “I see light in you.” The young man had no clue what this meant, but he read a few books published by the WHO on sanitation, and decided to live in a scavenger’s colony for two months to understand them and their problems. People thought he was crazy. He survived, and came back with an understanding that was different from any social activist in this field.
He felt that the discrimination of the untouchables was due to technical reasons. The untouchables, or manual scavengers of toilets, were considered dirty as they dealt with human excreta while cleaning “bucket toilets.” Human excreta would be pulled out of such toilets into buckets and then, scavengers would carry buckets on their heads to a location for disposal. If there could be an alternate toilet designed to be self-cleaning, then it would be cheaper for the consumer as they wouldn’t need to hire people to clean it. It would also eliminate the need for the scavenging profession.
Pathak started “Sulabh” (which means “easy”) to address this. He came up with the two-pit pour-flush toilet which would work in the Indian context. One pit would be in use at a time. Once the pit was full, it would would be closed and the other would be in operation. Over a year, the first pit’s contents would turn into manure and could be used as fertilizer in the field. Thus, there would be no need to scavenge and clean these toilets. Sulabh’s toilet product turned out to be a great hit, with over a million pieces already sold. Sulabh then channeled their profits toward retraining the untouchables to enter mainstream society – as cooks, beauticians, electricians, etc. Today, Sulabh has a whole array of toilet products to suit your budget.
Pathak also felt strongly about the problem of open defecation. Unlike those who faulted the “Indian civic sense,” he recognized that the problem was that we didn’t have enough public toilets. This is also a question of human dignity, especially for women, as they would suppress the call of nature the whole day and only go very early in the morning or in the night. Even so, such trips would make them a target of sexual predators, snakebites, diseases due to defecating in unhygienic environs, etc., not to speak of the health problems that come from suppressing the call of nature the entire day. Again, this was a technical problem waiting to be solved. So, he started the first public toilet in (hold your breath) Arrah, Bihar, a state where people would rather travel on top of trains than buy tickets. Pathak believed people would pay for a clean toilet experience, and he was proved right. The people of Bihar paid and sustained the public toilets. Today, Sulabh has built over 5000 public toilets all over India, including the largest toilet in the world at Shirdi for pilgrims.
Not only do these toilets generate local employment, they also collect raw material for Sulabh’s energy innovation – bio-gas and electricity production. You have to see it with your own eyes – yes, your excreta can now be used to produce cooking gas and electricity.
Pathakji also understood that he needed to help the children of the scavengers get the same opportunity as others. Sulabh uses its profits to run a school where children of the scavengers get free education, books and uniforms. They also eat together with children of other communities, and learn Sanskrit, a language they were earlier denied access to. The children in this school are taught all religions so they can celebrate all of India’s traditions.
And the story does not end here. Sulabh also has a toilet museum which is now on the tourist maps of New Delhi. They have expanded to eco-sanitation projects that help with pisciculture, among other things. Throughout these projects, Pathakji continued his education to go on for a Phd and a D.Litt, and has coined a new term, “Action Sociology,” which he advocates as a way to solve social problems.
Behind all of these efforts is a deep-rooted spirituality. Pathakji’s day begins with the entire Sulabh community praying (they sing a universal prayer) and filling their hearts with positive vibrations. When I interviewed him, not once did I sense anger against society for discrimination of the untouchables. At the same time, there was no acceptance of the injustice. Like Krishnammal and Sandhya, and in a completely unique manner, Pathakji has transcended anger and hatred to make a difference, a big difference, through social entrepreneurship. He is indeed a bright light in India who has illuminated our conscience and given us great hope for the future.
You can meet him by going to the Palam Vihar (New Delhi) office of Sulabh International Social Service Organization (although he travels often, he is generally accessible). You can also meet the other heroes of Sulabh and see their toilet museum and a demonstration of bio-gas and electricity from human excreta in the same complex. There are several volunteering and internship opportunities with this organization, if you have the time.
And if you can’t visit them, here is a film I made on Sulabh in 2006. I recommend watching it in full-screen mode (press the TV icon) and using headphones. If the film does not show up for some reason, here is the direct link on Blip TV.