Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak (top right), his Sulabh Shauchalaya (below) and the ex-scavengers now on fashion shows in New York.
Alwar in Rajasthan is a two-hour drive from Delhi, the Capital of India. In this region of forts and lakes, you often come across women in blue sarees who once were scavengers, picking up night soils, cleaning latrines/gutters and carrying excreta on their heads. Now they make edible items likes papads, noodles, pickles which are sold far and wide in Delhi, Chandigarh and Ahmedabad. They are also taught embroidery, make-up, jute bags and are also making sarees. As many as 105 women have been liberated from the stigma; freed from the yoke which they inherited from their parents.
This is all part of a revolution sweeping India by the name of Sulabh International, a project entirely the work of one Dr. Bindheshwar Pathak, one of the most important social reformers of modern India. The 73-year-old lives and breathes by the dictum of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar: “When everybody will go to a temple to worship, when everybody will take bath in the same pond, everyone will draw water from the same well and everybody will dine together,” then a new, caste-free India would be born.
The basis of all this is Sulabh, of course. “Relating ourselves with the upper caste, leave alone making something which could be used by people who even didn’t consider us human beings was an impossibility,” says a redeemed scavenger. Today, 1.3 million bucket toilets have been converted into Sulabh Shauchalaya, more than a million scavengers have been liberated and 640 towns have been made sacavenging-free.
In its model, Sulabh device is hugely efficient and simple. It consists of two pits with sealed covers and a water seal. Both the pits are used alternately. After one pit fills, excreta is diverted into the second pit, keeping the first pit in a “rest period” for 2 years during which excreta converts to solid, odourless, pathogen-free manure. It can be dugout easily by the beneficiary and used as manure. This technology does not require manual cleaning of human excreta. The two-pit-pour-flush toilet has been successfully introduced in urban areas.
This compost toilet does not cause water pollution. Horizontally, bacteria does not travel more than 3 metres. Vertically, the seepage is not more than 1 metre. The toilet is built at a safe distance from the source of water. No vent pipe is needed since the gas gets absorbed in the soil. Given the space, the pits could be shaped in rectangular, circular or linear in shape. Sulabh toilets could be constructed on the upper floors of buildings. It can easily be connected to sewers.
The technology has been declared as one of the Global Best Practices by UN-Habitat/UNCHS (UN Centre for Human Settlements) and recognized by international agencies such as WHO, UNICEF and UNEP among others. The UNDP has recommended its use to the 2.6 billion people around the world, especially in developing countries who have no hygienic toilets in their houses.
Pathak is the man whose vision has transformed the lives of millions, restoring their human dignity and dismantling their ostracisation within society. He recounts his journey in his own words and its worthy of our attention:
“When I was a boy, a lady used to come to my home to deliver bamboo objects. When the lady used to leave, my grandmother would sprinkle the entire house with holy water. I was curious about this lady. Many people used to come to our house, but my grandmother didn’t sprinkle water those times. I asked my grandmother and she said that the lady is untouchable and if I touch her, I would get polluted.
“My curiosity led me to touch the lady and I found no change in my body! My grandmother made a hue and cry and summoned the Pandit to come and tell the family of how we could overcome this crime. I was looked at as a criminal.” The Pandit came up with a solution.
“If you put cow dung in his mouth, cow urine to drink and make him bathe in the holy river (during winters), then he will be pure.” Young Dr. Pathak went through this ordeal and this was his first brush with the issue of untouchability in India.
He began as a school teacher and then tried his hands in the business of medicines for a year. In 1967, the issues of scavenger community got his attention and he decided to live in a scavenger colony in Bettiah district of Bihar for three months. A Brahmin staying in an untouchable colony was unthinkable in those times.
Another incident was a game-changer in Dr. Pathak’s life. In his own words:
“One day, I saw a newly-wed girl from the community, crying bitterly because her in-laws were forcing her to go to Bettiah town to clean toilets. I asked the mother in law – Why are you forcing her? The mother in law replied – What will she do anyway? If she sells vegetables, no one will buy from her.”
Dr. Pathak says that this is one of the black spots in Indian history that if you have committed a crime, not a heinous one, you can be released from jail but Indian society is such that if you’re born an untouchable, you will die an untouchable and suffer with scant chance of escape.
Another incident of a boy dying because people refused to help the untouchable scavenger boy hit Dr. Pathak deeply. He decided to liberate scavengers through low cost sanitation by inventing the twin pit pour flush model.
In 1973, he was given Rs 500 to build two Sulabh Shauchalayas for demonstration in the compound of the Arrah municipality, a small town in Bihar. Though impressive, there was no ready acceptance. At this stage, a secretary of the urban development came to Dr.Pathak’s rescue.”We will allow this man to put up 200 toilets in Bihar, and if it works, it will change the history of India,” he said. Sulabh replaced bucket toilets in Bihar. The pilot project that started in 1973 gave way to one of the biggest waves in sanitation across the world.
The Sulabh International has grown to a Rs 275-crore project. The blue sareed women of Alwar are visiting Geneva, New York and London as role models. They even have taken part in a fashion event in New York. They are being given education and can converse in Hindi and English. They are now able to apply for jobs worth Rs10,000-15,000.
A staunch believer of Gandhian views and of Ambedkar as well, Dr. Pathak says, “I have not changed the caste; it’s the same caste now, status has changed. Now they’re not called untouchables. They go with Brahmins and upper caste to dine and to sit together. This great change has happened in the country. This is very important. We have brought together both the concept of Gandhi and Ambedkar. We have brought a change in the society’s social structure.”
Dr. Pathak presently is a brand ambassador of Swachh Rail Mission.