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’Toilets the most talked-about issue’

Rakesh Kumar |

Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, does not need any introduction. A Padma Bhushan awardee, Pathak is an Indian icon in the field of sanitation and social reforms that have made a difference to the lives of millions of people.

He started a struggle for toilets in 1968, when open defecation was part of one’s culture. Toilets were nowhere to be seen ~ not even in the houses of the affluent. He then came up with his valuable innovation ~ two-pit pour-flush toilet, popularly known as the Sulabh Shauchalaya System. Pathak has also developed a technology for complete recycling and reuse of human excreta from public toilets.

His ingenious technology is quite affordable and culturally acceptable. It was declared one of the Global Best Practices by UN-HABITAT/UNCHS (United Nations Centre for Human Settlements) and recognised and approved by various other national and international agencies such as WHO, UNICEF, UNEP and WSSCC.

So far, Pathak has constructed more than 7,500 public toilets in slums and at public, religious and tourist places, which have been used by around 10 million people. His relentless efforts were appreciated not only in India but also around the world, fetching him several awards and laurels.

Last year, the Mayor of New York (Bill De Blasio) declared 14 April as Dr Bindeshwar Pathak Day. In a candid interaction, Pathak spoke about his work to RAKESH KUMAR.


Q: You belong to an affluent family from the upper caste. What made you to jump into this “dirty” work?

A: Actually it was circumstances. When I was a child a lady used to visit our house. Once she left, my grandmother would sprinkle water wherever she had stood. She was called an “untouchable”. Out of curiosity, one day I touched her to see what happens. My grandmother saw me touching her. She was furious and called a Pandit to purify me.

He suggested keeping me isolated from everyone in a room. However, my mother objected and sought another solution. Then the Pandit suggested feeding me cow dung and urine. During my job with the Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee, I had to spend three months with “untouchables” in Bettiah town.

Then I came to know about the plight of these people. Two incidents occurred: First, a young bride was forced into manual scavenging. And when I pleaded on her behalf I was told that if she did not do scavenging she would not be able to earn anything. The second incident was related to a young boy being gored by a bull and the crowd gathering to help him. When someone among the crowd said he was an “untouchable” everyone withdrew.

He died on the way to hospital. These experiences and incidents made me firm in my mission to see that untouchability is (removed) and the obnoxious practice of defecating in the open is eliminated. Another reason was that in my village there was no toilet. Even my house, which was comparatively bigger, had no toilets. Only in school, there was a bucket toilet which used to be cleaned by the “untouchables”.

Q: What is your technology and how is it helpful for “untouchables”?

 A: I always try to fulfill the dream of Mahatma Gandhi. Once he said that till they (“untouchables”) do some clean work, nobody will make friends with them. In our two-pit technology, one doesn’t require manual cleaning. We have converted many bucket toilets to two-pit toilets to relive the scavenger from the demeaning practice. Not only this we have installed 1.5 million toilets in homes and 8,000 public toilets all over the country.

Q: What were the hardships you faced during the initial days of your movement?

A: Money and execution of idea were the major problems. After developing the technology, I went to meet several government representatives of Bihar. I was refused many a time. I applied for some grants (Rs 17,000) from the Union government, and my file kept moving here and there. I had no money, I had to sell ornaments and a piece of land. One fine day, a government official asked me to convert all the government bucket toilets into Sulabh Toilets. From then I never looked back.

Q: It has been more than four decades that you have been fighting this menace. Now where do you find yourself?

 A: I am very happy. Earlier toilet was a private thing, but now the scenario has changed totally. The issue, which was the most neglected, has become the most talked about. The Prime Minister speaks about toilets from the Red Fort and there is a film also. What more does one need?

Q: Isn’t it shameful for India that even after 70 years of Independence we are still talking about toilets?

 A: Yes I agree…The Union government should have adopted Sulabh models of toilets, which is now widely accepted. All the 1.5 million toilets we have made so far, you will never hear they are lying vacant or unused. If I were part of government, this menace would have finished in India long ago. I suggested to the Union government that in each of the six lakh villages, they must train one person who should be made responsible for making toilets and taking care of them. If he makes 20 toilets a month, there will be 240 in a year. This is how, in all the 6 lakh villages, there will be around 15 crore toilets. And we need only 12 crore. This is how it can be done in just one year.

Q: Where do you think we are lacking?

A: At many places…One can’t make a good toilet in Rs 12,000. I suggest the Union government give them Rs 12,000 and the people put in the rest of the money. Then they can make the toilet as per their desire.

Q: Railways is the biggest platform to promote open defecation? What is your take on it?

A: A committee was set up in 2008 for railways. Everyone suggested something. Some suggested installing biotech toilets, but I asked them to use detachable containers. The container can be installed beneath the train’s coaches, where the waste can be collected and then emptied at junction stations and carried to a nearby biogas plant. The biogas can be used for purposes of lighting the railway yard or houses nearby. This is the best option until you get better technology.

Q: You have become the brand ambassador for Railway cleanliness but the CAG report is silent. Your take on this.

A: Suresh Prabhu is a good man, and he understands my work. Therefore, he made me the brand ambassador. As the work was given to me, I cleaned 800 railway stations. But now they will have to carry it forward.

Q: Are you going to join politics?

 A: I am okay for the Rajya Sabha if someone nominates me