A Clean Sweep: The story of Sulabh International founder Dr Bindeshwar Pathak

How a simple two-pit toilet system changed the landscape of household sanitation and the fates of manual scavengers nationwide

By Anu Prabhakar Updated: Apr 20, 2023 14:42:20 IST
A Clean Sweep: The story of Sulabh International founder Dr Bindeshwar Pathak Photo: Rakesh Sahay

Growing up, we had a great big house, which had everything,” recalls Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the NGO Sulabh International. “Everything, that is, except a toilet. So, at about four a.m. everyday, I would hear my mother, aunt, grandmother and sisters going out in the dark to relieve themselves.”

Being born to an upper caste Brahmin family in 1943 granted one a number of social privileges, but open defecation was a common practice, and not even the elite were exempt. “Back then, there was no infrastructure that people could adopt for better sanitation,” he says of his home village Rampur Baghel in Bihar’s Vaishali district. “Septic tanks were costly and only very few towns even had a sewage network.”

Sanitation systems at the time (one that persists in many underdeveloped parts of India even today) were rudimentary, with convenience, comfort or dignity reserved only for those among the higher classes, such as zamindars. They used bucket toilets and dry latrines but these had to be regularly cleaned—a task typically passed on to people from the ‘lower’ caste, who were deemed ‘untouchable’. People from this marginalized group had to rely on the open out-doors for their own needs, regardless of weather or peril.

As a young boy, Pathak witnessed and became keenly aware of every-day discriminations based on caste, a system so suffocatingly powerful that it dictated everything—one’s life, occupation, even death. He remembers wondering why his grandmother sprinkled the ground with water every time the lady who sold them bamboo utensils visited their house. “When I asked, she explained that the woman was an ‘untouchable’—someone who pollutes the land,” the 80-year-old recounts. All hell broke loose one day when young Pathak touched the woman out of curiosity. His grandmother forced him to swallow cow dung and cow urine in an attempt to ‘purify’ him.

“‘Untouchables’ were not allowed to touch village wells, and so had to wait, sometimes for an entire day, for some kind stranger to draw water from the well for them,” he adds. While pained by the normalized injustices around him, Pathak’s focus turned to finding a job like most youngsters his age. He studied sociology and a bit of criminology in college and decided to pursue the latter. “I thought this could help me to be-come a member of the CID (Crime Investigation Department) or a police officer,” he says. And he would have become one, if not for a serendipitous train journey that would determine the trajectory of his life.

In 1968, while on his way to university for a criminology course, he happened to meet a cousin and a friend at Hajipur Junction railway station who told him about a vacant secretary’s position in the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebrations Committee. “They said they would get me the job and took my luggage from the train even though I resisted,” he smiles. The Committee’s mission was to spread the ideals and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi through its four cells, one of which was dedicated to ‘Bhangi-mukti’ or ‘scavengers’ liberation’. The job never materialized but Pathak began working for the group, as an unpaid translator. By 1969, he was transferred to the Bhangi-mukti cell as a liaison officer and sent to live with manual scavengers in Bettiah to figure out a solution to the twin problems of open defecation and human scavenging.

Despite his familiarity with the realities of caste atrocities, Pathak’s time with the scavengers was eye opening: “Beyond description …” is how he terms the grim conditions he found there. Human waste would have to be transported as head-loads in flimsy containers prone to spillage and seepage. Caste-based bondage was very strong. “The belief was once you are born an ‘untouchable’, you will die one,” says the 80-year-old.

image-15_042023023847.jpgIn 2012, Sulabh International was one of two NGOs to be approached by the Supreme Court to work on improving the lives of widows in Vrindavan. Photo credit: Photo: ©Deepak Malik/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

In 1969, with the help of the Bhangi-mukti cell organizer who provided him with the right books, Pathak designed the technology for a two-fold solution: one that would establish a sanitation system and, with the elimination of the older ways of waste disposal, free those socially sentenced to a horrific occupation. His two-pit pour-flush toilet was named Sulabh Shauchalaya (‘accessible toilets’). “You use one pit at a time; when the first one is full, you switch to the other. After two years, the waste in the first pit turns into manure, which can be used to fertilize fields,” he explains. “One flush uses about 1 to 1.5 litres of water, compared to 10 litres used by septic tanks. Moreover, there is no gas pipe in the pit and thus, no emission of methane. The materials needed to construct these toilets are all locally available too.”

Pathak launched his NGO Sulabh International and the Sulabh Sanitation Movement the next year from Arrah, a town in Bihar but success was far from instant. “Awareness about the need for sanitation was nil—even schools did not have toilets,” he says. It was two years before things turned around when an Arrah municipality officer offered `500 to construct two toilets for demonstration in their municipal compound. This show of support was bolstered by another: the ward councilor offered to install a Sulabh toilet in his own home. “When people came to know about the toilet—how it was odour-free and remained clean—they began to change their bucket toilets too. Things took off from there,” says Pathak.

Pathak also introduced pay-and-use public toilets in India with funding from the Patna Municipal Corporation. “The money for maintenance however had to be collected from the public,” he recalls. “The first one saw five hundred people coming to use it on the first day.” In 1980, he also devised a way in which waste from public toilets could be recycled to produce biogas.

Sulabh now works across 1,586 towns across 24 states and five Union Territories and engages three million volunteers. Pathak estimates that the number of converted dry latrines and newly constructed pour-flush toilets stand at 1.6 million nationwide. State governments, with Central sup-port, have also installed 110 million household Sulabh Shauchalayas in rural areas. Pathak’s efforts to bring effective sanitation systems into India’s heartland as well as his philanthropic efforts to rehabilitate manual scavengers and uplift other discriminated groups, such as widows and Dalits, has been recognized through multiple awards, including the Padma Bhushan and the 2009 Stockholm Water Prize. His work however, is far from complete.

“There were once 3.5 million hu-man scavengers, of which eight lakh were cleaning toilets exclusively,” he says citing the 1961 census. “Much has changed, but more than 50,000 scavengers are still engaged in this work. If the methodologies that have worked so far are applied to the rest of the country, that cycle can be broken too. Soon, I want to extend these facilities to other countries of the world,” he says..

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