Sulabh@50: Why India Should Celebrate The Perseverance Of Bindeshwar Pathak This Year
Sulabh International, one of the world’s largest sanitation movements, completes 50 years. But it is the story of perseverance of one man — Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder — who used the toilet as a tool for social cohesion.
Bindeshwar Pathak toiled extensively — moving from door to door — through the dusty, rugged and filthy alleys of towns like Arrah in the eastern Indian state of Bihar in the 1970s.
He would urge the well-off families here to convert their dry latrines into flush toilets so that manual cleaning could be done away with — but there were few takers. It was at a time when India was very poor — Bihar even poorer.
Sanitation was a non-issue — a pointless and a dirty thing to be discussed. The social segregation on caste lines was severe and ruthlessly imposed by the dominant upper castes to keep those who belonged to the lowest stratum out of their purview.
They were known as “untouchables” — systematically excluded from the mainstream education, jobs or heathcare. And worse, not even allowed to enter temples or draw water from the same wells used by the upper castes.
Pathak, the founder of Sulabh Sanitation Movement, wanted to fight this — but his weapon for promoting social cohesion was a toilet technology that he developed recently.
It all began in 1968, when he was dispatched as a volunteer to a town called Betiah in Bihar to work for the uplift of manual scavengers.
He had just joined a committee that was set up to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary.
It was here that he saw the magnitude of the problems first-hand: the community of manual scavengers — also known as “untouchables” — were brutally treated and almost condemned to live an inhuman life.
One incident, in particular, left a lasting impression: Pathak says, “One day, whilst working there, I witnessed a harrowing incident. I saw a bull attacking a boy in a red shirt. When people rushed to save him, somebody yelled that he was an ‘untouchable’. The crowd instantly abandoned him and left him to die.”
Pathak adds, “This tragic and unjust incident had shaken my conscience to the core. That day, I took a vow to fulfil the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi — which was to fight for the rights of “untouchables” but also to champion the cause of human dignity and equality in my country and around the world. This became my mission.”
Pathak realised that to help manual scavengers, a technology had to be developed so that the manual cleaning of night soil could be eliminated.
He, thus, developed a sustainable technology known as a ‘two-pit pour flush toilet’, that could replace the bucket toilets and do away with manual cleaning.
It later became popular as ‘Sulabh toilet’. The objective was to bring an end to this inhuman practice of cleaning night soil manually — this was the beginning of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement.
During those days, open defecation was rampant. Women were the worst sufferers. They had to go out for defecation in the cover of the dark — early morning or after sunset — and hence ran a very high risk of being exposed to crime, snake bites and even animal attacks.
Lack of toilets exposed children to diarrhoeal diseases and scores died before attaining the age of five.
The concept of public toilets was non-existent.
Despite these huge social challenges, Pathak’s project was initially a non-starter and got entangled in perennial bureaucratic processes. But Pathak was undeterred.
However, for Pathak, the moment of reckoning came in 1973, when an officer of Arrah municipality — a small town in Bihar — gave Pathak 500 rupees to construct two toilets for demonstration in its premises. The toilets impressed the authorities, who sanctioned a project for its wider implementation.
In 1974, the Bihar government sent a circular to all the local bodies to take the help of Sulabh in the conversion of bucket toilets into Sulabh two-pit pour-flush toilets designed by Pathak with a view to relieving the scavengers from the sub-human occupation of cleaning human excreta manually and carrying it as head load.
The programme was then rolled out throughout the state of Bihar. In the same year, Pathak introduced the system of maintenance of public toilets on a pay-and-use basis.
At that time, it was a new concept in India but very soon it became popular all over the country.
By 1980, as many as 25,000 people were using Sulabh public facilities in Patna alone. Such was the success of the programme that it soon received the attention of the national and international press.
In the last five decades, Pathak’s movement liberated over 200,000 manual scavengers from the inhuman occupation of manual cleaning of dry latrines and economically empowered them through skill development programmes.
The toilet technology that Pathak developed has been installed to build over 1.5 million households and over 9,500 public toilets, which are used by scores of people across India.
One of the remarkable successes of this intervention has been the adoption a community-based behaviour change approach by creating awareness and demand for sanitation and hygiene in rural India.
It has converted dry latrines into two-pit pour flush latrines in 1,749 towns and worked with women — mainly mothers — to achieve total sanitation by making them the agents of change.
Its work has had a remarkable outcome in reducing diarrhoeal disease, mortality and morbidity among children.
Sulabh has also built 19,603 toilets blocks covering 6,241 schools across India. Its school intervention programmes are designed to promote girls’ right to education and this has resulted in a remarkable improvement in school enrolment and attendance of girls.
In 2012, Sulabh stepped in (at the behest of India’s Supreme Court) to provide care services for the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi, who were shunned by their families and were impoverished and neglected.
Sulabh’s intervention transformed the living conditions of the widows, bringing them security, solace and joy during their old age.
Sulabh today is committed to work on sustainable solutions to make sanitation and water accessible to all and to contribute towards implementing SDG goals.
To that effect, since 2014, Sulabh has been working towards providing clean contamination free water accessible and affordable to India’s poorest communities.
Subsequently, it has introduced a pro-poor system to make drinking water affordable at 1 rupee/litre.
A process was developed to produce drinking water of appropriate quality from the surface water in arsenic affected areas of West Bengal and Bihar.
The objective was to create a decentralised people-friendly approach aimed at empowering communities so that the villagers, with training, can run the plant effectively.
Pathak says, “Change in the society is possible if we ourselves become the agent of change. We need collective action of everyone to reform the unjust practices of our society and work for prosperity of all communities where in the world they live.”
Sulabh’s work across India has made a critical difference in the lives of millions of severely disadvantaged poor who couldn’t afford toilets.
Pathak’s vision and ethos have intrinsically contributed to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
His actions aimed at rehabilitating manual scavengers, restoring their dignity by providing alternative employment through skill development, presents an inspiring example of promoting peace, tolerance and empowerment by non-violent means.
The Government of India awarded Sulabh International (for 2016) the Gandhi Peace Prize for its contribution to improving the sanitation situation in India and for its role in the emancipation of manual scavengers.
Pathak has received a number of national and international laurels including Padma Bhushan (1991) and the Stockholm Water Prize (2009).
This story was first published on medium.com and is being republished here with permission.
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