Thoughts on economics and liberty

Tag: caste

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.
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It seems that some Indians don’t leave their caste behind even after leaving India

Very rarely does one get positive coverage about India or Indians in Western newspapers, and I don't think it is because of any bias against India. (Of course, most Indians do the right thing, but perhaps only problems make it to the news? This is perhaps a universal phenomenon.)

On a single day – for instance, today – the following FOUR news items about India or Indians stood out prominently in Australian newspapers:

a) one – about the Indian government's injustice in refusing to pay Australians for the work they did for the Commonwealth Games

b) two – about an Indian "tycoon" (thief?) Pankaj Oswal who appears to have looted a lot of money in Australia and has now fled to India, leaving a great mess behind him;

c) three – about a new Indian migrant who killed an Indian child in a fit of extreme foolishness and has now been jailed for five years, and

d) four – about an Indian Australian who, on the grounds of caste, forced his daughter to marry someone she didn't want to marry – in India

The first story is about the corruption found inside the Indian government, but the other three are related to private Indians. That is surely a matter of grave concern. The case (d) is so unfortunate that I'm posting it in full below.

Is any of this covered in Indian newspapers and TV? I don't know. All I know is that the Indian media (and many top-notch writers) made big fools of themselves through grossly inflated claims about Australian racism in 2009. It was later proven that most Indians killed or burnt in Australia were harmed by other Indians – so finally the Indian media shut its mouth – but not before it caused severe harm to India-Australia relations. Perhaps one way for it to redeem itself is to cover the crimes and misdeeds of Indians abroad. 

As a result of the incessant flow of bad news about India and Indians, the average image of India (and Indians) is very poor. One reason for that is that we no longer have leaders of the calibre of Mahatma Gandhi: even our leaders are renowned only for their corruption. It is surely time to change things. FTI is determined to shift the situation for the better.

The inhuman racist claims of 'Hindu' casteism that Indians bring even to Australia
Arranged marriage ruled invalid

(The Australian, 3 February 2011)

THE Family Court has refused to recognise the arranged marriage of a young Melbourne woman to a man she had never previously met, saying the union could not be valid under Australian law because the girl had not been truly free to consent.

The case, known as Kreet and Sampir, involved a girl who was tricked into travelling to India to marry a man chosen for her by her father.

Judge Paul Cronin, sitting in Melbourne, said the marriage could not be legal because the girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had agreed to go through with the ceremony only because she was afraid of her parents.

According to court documents, the girl was born in Australia to Indian-born parents who "remained closely connected to their former country's culture (and) strongly against much of Australian culture". She was "not allowed to cut her hair or wear skirts or dresses unless they were part of her school uniform".

In a quiet act of rebellion, the girl met a boy, known only as Mr U, on the internet in July 2007, when she was about 16. She kept the relationship secret (Mr U lived in Melbourne, while she was then living in Sydney) until June 2008, when she told her parents she wanted to marry Mr U.

Her parents "demanded she cease the relationship" because they objected to Mr U's caste. She was kept home from school, and her telephone and internet access were cut off, but she found ways to stay in touch with Mr U.

In October 2008, the girl's father told her she would be going to India as soon as she turned 18, to find "an appropriate husband". The girl fled to Melbourne, to be with Mr U.

Her father threatened to "kidnap and rape" Mr U's mother and sisters; he assaulted the girl by slapping her face, and then apologised profusely. She eventually went home with him, but only after he agreed to let her marry Mr U in a ceremony in India.

The girl flew out of Australia in 2009, expecting to marry Mr U but, when she got to India, her parents took her passport and introduced her to a man "who was to become her husband".

The girl's father again told her he would have Mr U's mother and sisters raped.

"I accept that (the girl) begged her parents not to force her to go through with the marriage and her father's response was to continue to threaten harm to Mr U's family," Judge Cronin said.

The girl was not required to speak at any time during the ceremony, "but simply to walk four times around the altar".

After the wedding, she went to her new husband's house (he lived with his parents) and "refused attempts at physical intimacy which culminated in assaults".

She later agreed to sign documents for a visa application for him, and flew home to Australia, where she immediately went to Melbourne to live with Mr U (she has withdrawn her support for her husband's visa application).

Judge Cronin said the marriage would be void if the girl could show that she gave her consent only because "some overbearing force was operating".

He said "the parents adopted a position based on a cultural practice" but the law to be applied "is that of Australia". "I am satisfied that the wife's physical state at the time of the ceremony was such that she was physically and mentally overborne. Her consent was not real because it was obtained by duress," he said.

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