Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals,communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.
Water ChampionBindeshwar Pathak: Crusading for Human and Environmental Dignity
Knowledge Management Officer
What made you want to change the plight of India’s“untouchables”?
When I was young,one of the many rules Ihad to follow wasabout not touchingcertain people. Oneday, out of curiosity, Itouched a ladyscavenger. Mygrandmother saw meand was so scandalizedat the “sin” Icommitted that she fed me cow-dung, sand, and Gangeswater to purify my soul. Years later, I saw a young boy leftto die in the rain after being gored by a bull. Nobody tookhim to the hospital because he was an “untouchable.” Those incidences made me challenge our system thatrewards an honest day’s work— cleaning latrines—withscorn and humiliation. I joined the Bihar Gandhi BirthCentenary Celebration Committee in 1968 because I wantedwhat Gandhi himself wanted—to bring back the rights anddignity of the “untouchables.” One problem he had, though,was that no technology could yet replace the bucketlatrines, which required scavengers for cleaning. That’s whyI developed the Sulabh toilet, biogas digester, and othertechnologies.
How did you convert your vision into action?
I lived with the scavengers in a colony at Bettiah andstudied their socio-economic conditions and cultural binds. Idid a lot of research to design the 2-pit, pour flush latrine(Sulabh toilet) and then did more work to convince theBihar government to adopt it. Once that part was moving, Iwent on to establish the public toilet complexes and appliedthe “pay-and-use” approach to make them sustainable.The household and public toilets freed many scavengersfrom the task of cleaning latrines but we still needed to domore work to mainstream them into society. So the nextstep was to give them livelihood training and then get themstarted on new jobs. Then we educated the scavengers’ children so that they can ultimately avoid the fate of theirparents.I must say that a lot of work went into all these steps, andit is collective work. I started promoting the Sulabh toilet bygoing from house to house on my own. Before long, therewere a lot of volunteers promoting the technology. Whenhouseholds agreed to adopt the Sulabh toilet, we would helpthem get financing, construct the actual toilets, and providerepair services free of charge when necessary. We alsoworked directly with communities plus governments at thecentral, state, and local levels.
ABOUT THE CHAMPION
Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is the founder of Sulabh International Social ServiceOrganisation, a non-governmentalorganization in India whose pioneering workon low-cost sanitation benefited millions of people within and outside the country.A sociologist by profession, Dr. Pathak’s workon sanitation began four decades ago with a crusade to elevatethe social status of scavengers who cleaned pit latrines andcarried excreta on their heads. These scavengers were called “untouchables” and treated as the lowest of the low. He knewthat his only chance of changing this 4,000 year old practicewas to eliminate the need for scavengers. That means makinglatrines maintenance-free, or as close to it as possible.Technology was Dr. Pathak’s solution to the problem. Forhouseholds, 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 pollutethe air, can produce fertilizer from human excreta and, mostimportantly, can be cleaned by the homeowners themselves,making scavengers redundant. For communities, he introducedthe public toilet complexes that are able to convert humanexcreta into biogas and treat effluent on-site.Sulath is the firstorganization to generate biogas from human excreta on a largescale. To date, more than 170 biogas plants are operational inBihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and other states in India.Eventually, Sulabh diversified by putting up vocational schoolsfor women and young people, community clinics, mobilehospitals, blood donation drives, herbal medicine propagation,yoga training and a lot more.Since its establishment in 1970, the group has installed theSulabh toilet in over 1.2 million houses in 1296 towns spreadover 25 states and 4 union territories across India. It has alsoconstructed and has been maintaining 7,500 community toiletson pay-and-use basis, servicing about 10 million people daily.And as testament to Dr. Pathak’s unwavering crusade, thegroup has liberated over 120,000 scavengers from theinhumane job of excreta collection from 13 million servicelatrines nationwide.Sulabh’s approach and technologies are now internationallyrecognized and applied in various countries, among themAfghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Africa. Dr.Pathak’s work has also earned him numerous national andinternational 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, DubaiInternational Award for Best Practices, The International SaintFrancis Prize for the Environment and Padma Bhushan Awardfor Distinguished Social Service.Sulabh’s experience shows how an NGO can bring aboutrevolutionary change both in the quality of life of the poor andin the improvement of their earning abilities through educationand training. But Sulabh’s work is far from over—India’ssanitation landscape is still littered with 13 million unsanitarybucket latrines, 700,000 scavengers doing house-to-houseexcreta collection, and widespread open defecation.