Bindeshwar Pathak: Helping India's Untouchables

Feature | 1 December 2011

What made you want to change the plight of India's "untouchables"?

When I was young, one of the many rules I had to follow was about not touching certain people. One day, out of curiosity, I touched a lady scavenger. My grandmother saw me and was so scandalized at the "sin" I committed that she fed me cow-dung, sand, and Ganges water to purify my soul. Years later, I saw a young boy left to die in the rain after being gored by a bull. Nobody took him to the hospital because he was an "untouchable."

Those incidences made me challenge our system that rewards an honest day's work - cleaning latrines - with scorn and humiliation. I joined the Bihar Gandhi Birth Centenary Celebration Committee in 1968 because I wanted what Gandhi himself wanted - to bring back the rights and dignity of the "untouchables." One problem he had, though, was that no technology could yet replace the bucket latrines, which required scavengers for cleaning. That's why I developed the Sulabh toilet, biogas digester, and other technologies.

How did you convert your vision into action?

I lived with the scavengers in a colony at Bettiah and studied their socio-economic conditions and cultural binds. I did a lot of research to design the 2-pit, pour flush latrine (Sulabh toilet) and then did more work to convince the Bihar government to adopt it. Once that part was moving, I went on to establish the public toilet complexes and applied the "pay-and-use" approach to make them sustainable.

The household and public toilets freed many scavengers from the task of cleaning latrines but we still needed to do more work to mainstream them into society. So the next step was to give them livelihood training and then get them started on new jobs. Then we educated the scavengers' children so that they can ultimately avoid the fate of their parents.

I must say that a lot of work went into all these steps, and it is collective work. I started promoting the Sulabh toilet by going from house to house on my own. Before long, there were a lot of volunteers promoting the technology. When households agreed to adopt the Sulabh toilet, we would help them get financing, construct the actual toilets, and provide repair services free of charge when necessary. We also worked directly with communities plus governments at the central, state, and local levels.

How did you develop Sulabh's 2 major technologies - the Sulabh toilet and biogas digester?

The World Health Organization (WHO) said 4 decades ago that the pit latrine was the most universally applicable - it was low-cost, needed little water, did not pollute, offered privacy, could be built quickly and locally, and needed no scavengers to clean it. I knew I had half my answer when I read that.

I did more research and testing until I had the final Sulabh toilet design - one that used the least amount of water, allowed easy switching between pits to enable composting, and provided for customization to suit local conditions.

The biogas digester came about as I was grappling with the problem of disposing human excreta from the public toilets. I tried pit latrines and septic tanks but they were getting filled up too quickly. I overheard someone say that he developed a bio-gas plant based on cow-dung. I thought that if cow-dung worked, why not human excreta?

More experimentation followed until I finally had the first biogas digester attached to a public toilet complex in Patna in 1984. The use of biogas for lighting mantle lamp, cooking, body warming and power generation ensures complete recycling of human waste.

To improve environmental sanitation and reduce health hazards, I did more research to develop related technologies, i.e. for treating effluents, for composting solid waste, for treating wastewater through duckweed and more.

How has acceptance for the Sulabh toilet evolved through the years?

It took years after I designed it before the first Sulabh toilet was ever built. I gave the technology to the Government of Bihar in 1969 but I was a sociologist, not an engineer, so the officials had doubts. In 1973, I found a man in Arrah, Bihar willing to construct the toilet for demonstration purposes. By 1974, the government of Bihar finally overcame its doubts and supported the conversion of bucket toilets into Sulabh toilets within Bihar.

After that, it was a matter of getting more exposure and continuing to educate the public.

Sulabh International gained more workers - we now have 60,000 people - who convinced the people to shift to the Sulabh toilet. A conference in Patna in 1978 gave us wide recognition in India. An international conference in 1980 introduced our work to 33 countries. Word about our achievements spread until the Indian central government finally adopted the Sulabh toilet for the entire country. Currently, there are Sulabh toilets in more than 1.2 million houses throughout the country.

How did your business model for the public toilets come about?

You have to remember that Indians were never in the habit of paying for the use of public toilets. The British Government passed a law back in 1878 requiring the citizens to pay but it did not work. In 1974, I got the chance to put up a public toilet in the town of Patna. The facility was grander than what people were used to - 46 seats, 10 urinals, and 20 baths. The Patna Municipal Corporation gave land and financed the construction of the facility but did not agree to pay for its maintenance. I had no choice but to ask people to pay.

On the first day of operation, 500 people used the toilet and paid a paltry sum of 10 paise1; per use. But they soon realized that the clean and environmentally friendly facilities also have uses beyond the biological - they were also good places for social, communal, and religious integration. So the complexes were accepted and we now have constructed and have been maintaining 7,500 throughout India.

Another aspect of our approach is that we never take subsidies, loans, donations, or grants. We take advance payments for the construction of the facilities and that's that. If there is leftover money, we spend it on sanitation related activities and on welfare programs - children's education, training of women scavengers for self employment, health and hygiene, education for the disabled, etc.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Sulabh movement?

A major strength is the integration offered by our approach. We combine the hardware (toilets) with the software (education, livelihood) and use research to continually innovate. Our technology is also a cornerstone of the Sulabh movement - it has now gained almost universal acceptance and we've kept it patent-free to ensure that it benefits more people.

Integrity in our work is also a big factor. We do not misuse a single farthing entrusted to our care, we use only the best materials the funds available can buy, we operate on the basis of transparency, we do not receive donations or grants from governments or donors so there is less interference in our work, and we have remained a non-partisan organization. As such, people trust our work and continue to seek our help.

Sulabh also has a dense and diverse network of volunteers dedicated to spreading the movement. We have administrators, financial and management experts, engineers, architects, sociologists, scientists, and people from the media.

The one weakness I would mention is related to the fact that we do not take financial assistance. This has limited our ability to reach a larger number of people.

Why has there been such a wide acceptance of the Sulabh approach?

Our initiatives have been adopted throughout India in more than 25 states, 4 union territories, and 1320 local bodies. We have constructed and are maintaining public toilets in Afghanistan and Bhutan and have provided training to professionals in 15 African countries. Other agencies in other countries have also adopted our technologies.

I think communities and nations have adopted our innovations because they are appropriate, affordable, financially viable, indigenous, and culturally acceptable. Our technologies not just provided them with an alternative to the costly sewerage and septic tank systems; they also brought back the diminished human dignity of the scavengers and those who practiced defecation in the open.

What are your plans for wider adoption of the Sulabh approach?

I plan to publish Sulabh literature in all the 22 languages of India, distributing 5 books each to 600,000 villages. I would also like to continue educating the people on sanitation and technology options, using whatever medium is available, e.g. videos, street plays, etc.

Next year, we plan to open branches of Sulabh in 50 countries to propagate the Sulabh approach and help countries achieve the sanitation target of the Millennium Development Goals.

What key insights can you highlight from your work on sanitation?

First, I think affordable and sustainable technology development is essential for social reform. I already mentioned how the absence of a technology to replace the bucket latrines frustrated Gandhi's efforts to liberate the scavengers.

Secondly, I think this should be accompanied by a social delivery mechanism that will promote change in mindsets and behavior as well as wider adoption of the innovation.

Finally, to implement programs that incorporate social reforms, NGOs need to work in close collaboration with governments, local bodies, communities, and international agencies. It is also important that promoters of social reforms gain the trust of the people and cultivate their partnership.

As an individual, what has been your most significant contribution to the sanitation landscape?

I am very proud of the Sulabh technologies, which have curtailed the practice of open defecation, promoted a healthier lifestyle, and helped upgrade environmental health. But the one benefit of these technologies I am most proud of is the restoration of the scavengers' dignity.

At the 7th World Toilet Summit in 2007, a former scavenger, Shushila Chauhan, shared the stage with the Netherland's Crown Prince of Orange and former President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. From being ostracized by the community to being honored globally, Shushila is an example of how radical a change the Sulabh approach has made in the lives of scavengers. Now, many are self-employed, selling papars (eatables), noodles, and pickles they prepared to people whose latrines they used to clean. And the change is not just in the scavengers themselves but the people around them. Where before, people would cross the street when they see a scavenger, now they willingly eat what the untouchables prepare by their own hands.


1; Equivalent to 1/10 of a rupee.


About the Champion

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is the founder of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, a non-governmental organization in India whose pioneering work on low-cost sanitation benefited millions of people within and outside the country.

A sociologist by profession, Dr. Pathak's work on sanitation began four decades ago with a crusade to elevate the social status of scavengers who cleaned pit latrines and carried excreta on their heads. These scavengers were called "untouchables" and treated as the lowest of the low. He knew that his only chance of changing this 4,000 year old practice was to eliminate the need for scavengers. That means making latrines maintenance-free, or as close to it as possible.

Technology was Dr. Pathak's solution to the problem. For households, he designed the 2-pit pour-flush latrine system, now popularly known as the Sulabh toilet. This toilet is low-cost, requires only 2 liters of water to flush, does not pollute the air, can produce fertilizer from human excreta and, most importantly, can be cleaned by the homeowners themselves, making scavengers redundant. For communities, he introduced the public toilet complexes that are able to convert human excreta into biogas and treat effluent on-site. Sulath is the first organization to generate biogas from human excreta on a large scale. To date, more than 170 biogas plants are operational in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and other states in India.

Eventually, Sulabh diversified by putting up vocational schools for women and young people, community clinics, mobile hospitals, blood donation drives, herbal medicine propagation, yoga training and a lot more.

Since its establishment in 1970, the group has installed the Sulabh toilet in over 1.2 million houses in 1296 towns spread over 25 states and 4 union territories across India. It has also constructed and has been maintaining 7,500 community toilets on pay-and-use basis, servicing about 10 million people daily. And as testament to Dr. Pathak's unwavering crusade, the group has liberated over 120,000 scavengers from the inhumane job of excreta collection from 13 million service latrines nationwide.

Sulabh's approach and technologies are now internationally recognized and applied in various countries, among them Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Africa. Dr. Pathak's work has also earned him numerous national and international awards, including the 2007 Energy Globe Award, the Indira Gandhi Award for Environment , Global 500 Roll of Honour Award by UNEP, Scroll of Honour by UN Habitat, Dubai International Award for Best Practices, The International Saint Francis Prize for the Environment and Padma Bhushan Award for Distinguished Social Service.

Sulabh's experience shows how an NGO can bring about revolutionary change both in the quality of life of the poor and in the improvement of their earning abilities through education and training. But Sulabh's work is far from over - India's sanitation landscape is still littered with 13 million unsanitary bucket latrines, 700,000 scavengers doing house-to-house excreta collection, and widespread open defecation.