17th February 2011
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, a hero for Modern India
I came by Daniel Lak's book, India Express recently through a second hand shop. Browsing through it today I chanced across a passage that deserves wide dissemination, for the wonderful message it brings.
Dr. Pathak, whose work I've seen develop (as a general citizen – I don't know him personally) from its early days into an impressive reform movement today that is changing the mindset and expectations of Indians, proves even a single person can make a huge difference. All that is needed is a vision and unwavering determination.
In relation to toilets, there are clearly some attitudinal issues in India. For instance, the bosses don't clean toilets. The heads of household don't clean toilets. And so on. But let me assure you that even the Brahmin (whatever that means) head of household has to clean his own toilet abroad. There are no servants. You either clean up or suffer the consequences! I am almost certain that it is a routine phenomenon for Prime Minsters in the West to clean their own toilets. It is such a routine thing that no one even thinks it is worth writing about.
So what's the issue here? Why are we so foolish on such an important matter as personal hygiene?
On the other hand, in Japan, clean toilets are a sign of pride. I was reading somewhere that even CEOs of companies clean their toilets, to ensure outstanding hygiene standards. On a passing flight via Tokyo a few years ago I was super-impressed at the high quality of toilets at the airport. Surely that is the standard we must aspire for in India. Not the third rate culture of dirty toilets, and not cleaning one's own toilet.
This is not just about clean toilets but about the horribly flawed, racist caste system. I believe that the problems in this area along with many others will be resolved through a radically different policy (such as those I advocate in BFN). To the extent social practices are embedded in the Indian psyche and won't be resolved through education, these may need to be changed through social reformers (not government). It won't be enough, to eliminate the obnoxious racist caste system, to build Sulabh sauchalayas. Pathak will have to make all the 'Dalits' into 'Brahmins' in a public ceremony. Or, as I recommend – the 'Dalits' should abandon Hinduism lock, stock, and barrel, and take on – well, nothing! Just become human, please. There is no need for spiritual crutches. We can all reach God ourselves with our own effort (assuming 'He' exists). No middleman is needed, no priest, no pujari.
Anyway, the caste issue is a more complex matter. Now read on about Dr Pathak.
Driving away from New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, I noticed a gray, single-story building. It sat in a landscaped garden of shrubs and trimmed grass. Groomed gravel paths led through the grounds to two doors at either end of the building, with the universally recognized pictorial symbols for men and women mounted on the doors. There was not a stray bit of litter in sight. The whole thing gleamed. A blue sign with white painted letters on top of the building proclaimed “Sulabh International Public Toilet” in both English and Hindi. I stopped my car to investigate the place. There were, I discovered, toilets, as the sign said, and they were spotless. I also found bathing facilities for both men and women, and attendants to look after them. Those who could afford to pay were charged a nominal fee, equivalent to a few cents; for those who couldn't, access was free. A young man showed me around. He took pains to take me into the open tracts of land nearby, pointing at the ground to show me that no one had been going to the toilet there. “No shit, no shit,” he kept saying, and I agreed.
In Sanskrit, sulabh is the word for “easy.” The name of the organization, and the thinking behind it, are the work of its founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak. Pathak is an upright, handsome man in his sixties who looks far younger. Persuading all Indians to make proper use of toilets, he believes, will resolve many of the country's health and social challenges. It's that easy, he repeats, many times during our conversation. His goal is nothing less than safe, hygienic sanitation for all of India's billion-plus population and liberation for the remaining 250,000 sweepers.
“A toilet in every home, and ample public toilets for travelers and the homeless, would make everything easier,” he said. We were sitting in an office decorated with photos of him with popes, the Dalai Lama, UN agency chiefs, European and Asian leaders and a succession of Indian cabinet ministers. “This would, of course, end waterborne disease. Dysentery and diarrhea cannot exist without human waste to spread them, and if [the waste is] put in a toilet and a sewer, not on the ground or in public, then where's the disease? Do you have any dysentery in America? In Europe? Of course you don't.
“We would eliminate the need for scavengers, the people who still collect the waste in this country in defiance of our laws. There are hundreds of thousands of them still, pulling wooden carts and picking up our waste. This is barbaric, the worst work imaginable, and people who do it are beyond untouchability. No one wants to know them. They are doomed and their children are doomed to illiteracy, alienation, outcast status.”
Pathak prefers the word scavenger to sweeper. He's fond of pointing out that India's great successes, its self-sufficiency in food, its nuclear weapons, its space program and information technology companies, all exist alongside a quarter million men, women and children who work as collectors of human waste. It was their plight, he says, that drew him into the promotion of public toilets and sanitation—not some obsession with cleanliness, but concern for a group of people who are perhaps the worst-off in the country. He is a Brahmin, born in the caste-ridden eastern state of Bihar, and he shocked his rather orthodox family when he chose to do research that plumbed the most disgusting depths of the caste system. He lived with sweepers. He went out with them on their rounds and helped them in their odiferous work. He got to know all too intimately the challenges and daily humiliations that come their way. His PhD thesis, now published as a report by Sulabh, is a scathing indictment of an Indian society that could have afforded another system of waste disposal but chose to continue with sweepers and scavengers, with all its foul effects. “We [Hindus] have this idea that if we throw our garbage over the wall of our compound, it no longer exists. Similarly, if we move our bowels and the product is taken away by a scavenger, we have done nothing wrong. We have done, in effect, nothing at all. This is in gross defiance of the texts and scriptures of our faith,” he says. Pathak is a devout Hindu, and he takes great umbrage at those within the creed who defend caste-based practices such as scavenging. “It's wrong, it's false, it's blasphemous to say there is any religious justification for this sort of behavior.” In fact, he says, Hindu scripture specifically prohibits the handling of human waste by other humans.
Pathak also believes that human feces are wasted in India. They could be used as fertilizer or in the generation of electricity or the production of fuel for cooking. The challenge, he says, is to overcome the natural aversion people have to excreta. There are dozens of projects in India and around South Asia to turn human waste into cooking gas. Sulabh backs several of them. Waste is deposited into a sealed concrete container with a valve on top. As the waste mater degrades, it produces methane gas that can be pressurized and burnt as fuel. Although it burns cleanly and without odor, biogas, as it's known, is a hard sell in many communities. People remain dubious, not convinced that it won't contaminate food or their homes.
Sulabh encourages people to build toilets appropriate to their surroundings and using available materials. In arid climates, where water is at a premium, this might be a drop toilet, where the feces are allowed to dry on a platform well below the seat, to minimize odor. Where the climate is damper, the organization encourages people to dig septic fields and make use of plants to help process and purify waste water. Britain's Prince Charles has a natural sewage-procesing pond on his estate in Dorset that uses common bulrushes to cleanse waste water. The prince is one of many well-known supporters of Suthlabh's work. Some environments are more suitable for pit toilets. Others need running water and a connection to sewer pipes. Those who are willing can connect their toilets to a biogas generator. There are few kinds of loo that Sulabh doesn't design and build.
The organization also has a toilet museum, which includes a working model of the first flush mechanism, designed by the English engineer Thomas Crapper in the nineteenth century. But what’s most impressive about Pathak is how, like Veer Badra Mishra, he remains a devout Hindu while acknowledging that his faith enables horrible forms of discrimination and unacceptable behavior. It is true that there is no scriptural justification for scavenging, but because it is a social practice that dates from ancient times, there is a belief in India that Hindu tradition condones it. Pathak rejects this. He urges fellow Brahmins and other members of higher castes to adopt scavenger families and oversee their education and development. He puts the touchables and untouchables in touch, if you will, and stresses how this is true Hindu practice. Some fifty thousand scavengers, he says proudly, are no longer collecting human waste, thanks to his efforts. They work in offices, factories and at Sulabh itself, spreading the word about toilets. Their children attend an English medium school to learn about Shakespeare and sewing machines and, once they graduate, they need never take on the task undertaken by their parents and grandparents.