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Water Champion: Bindeshwar Pathak on Crusading for Human and Environmental Dignity

Water Champion: Bindeshwar Pathak on Crusading for Human and Environmental Dignity

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Published by adbwaterforall
Water Champion: Bindeshwar Pathak on Crusading for Human and Environmental Dignity
Water Champion: Bindeshwar Pathak on Crusading for Human and Environmental Dignity

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Published by: adbwaterforall on Jan 31, 2013
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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
April 2008
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. 
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.
How did you develop Sulabh’s 2 major technologies—the Sulabh toilet and biogas digester?
The World Health Organization (WHO) said 4 decades agothat the pit latrine was the most universally applicable—itwas low-cost, needed little water, did not pollute, offeredprivacy, could be built quickly and locally, and needed noscavengers to clean it. I knew I had half my answer when Iread that.I did more researchand testing until I hadthe final Sulabh toiletdesign—one that usedthe least amount of water, allowed easyswitching between pitsto enable composting,and provided forcustomization to suitlocal conditions.The biogas digester came about as I was grappling with theproblem of disposing human excreta from the public toilets.I tried pit latrines and septic tanks but they were gettingfilled up too quickly. I overheard someone say that hedeveloped a bio-gas plant based on cow-dung. I thoughtthat if cow-dung worked, why not human excreta?More experimentation followed until I finally had the firstbiogas digester attached to a public toilet complex in Patnain 1984. The use of biogas for lighting mantle lamp,cooking, body warming and power generation ensurescomplete recycling of human waste.To improve environmental sanitation and reduce healthhazards, I did more research to develop relatedtechnologies, i.e. for treating effluents, for composting solidwaste, for treating wastewater through duckweed andmore.
How has acceptance for the Sulabh toilet evolvedthrough the years?
It took years after I designed it before the first Sulabh toiletwas ever built. I gave the technology to the Government of Bihar in 1969 but I was a sociologist, not an engineer, sothe officials had doubts. In 1973, I found a man in Arrah,Bihar willing to construct the toilet for demonstrationpurposes. By 1974, the government of Bihar finallyovercame its doubts and supported the conversion of buckettoilets into Sulabh toilets within Bihar.After that, it was a matter of getting more exposure andcontinuing to educate the public.Sulabh International gained more workers—we now have60,000 people—who convinced the people to shift to theSulabh toilet. A conference in Patna in 1978 gave us widerecognition in India. An international conference in 1980introduced our work to 33 countries. Word about ourachievements spread until the Indian central governmentfinally adopted the Sulabh toilet for the entire country.Currently, there are Sulabh toilets in more than 1.2 millionhouses throughout the country. 
How did your business model for the public toiletscome about?
You have to rememberthat Indians were neverin the habit of payingfor the use of publictoilets. The BritishGovernment passed alaw back in 1878requiring the citizens topay but it did not work.In 1974, I got thechance to put up apublic toilet in the town of Patna. The facility was granderthan what people were used to—46 seats, 10 urinals, and20 baths. The Patna Municipal Corporation gave land andfinanced the construction of the facility but did not agree topay for its maintenance. I had no choice but to ask peopleto pay.On the first day of operation, 500 people used the toilet andpaid a paltry sum of 10 paise
per use. But they soonrealized that the clean and environmentally friendly facilitiesalso have uses beyond the biological— they were also goodplaces for social, communal, and religious integration. So thecomplexes were accepted and we now have constructed andhave been maintaining 7,500 throughout India.Another aspect of our approach is that we never takesubsidies, loans, donations, or grants. We take advancepayments for the construction of the facilities and that’sthat. If there is leftover money, we spend it on sanitationrelated activities and on welfare programs— children’seducation, training of women scavengers for self employment, health and hygiene, education for the disabled,etc.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Sulabhmovement?
A major strength is the integration offered by our approach.We combine the hardware (toilets) with the software(education, livelihood) and use research to continuallyinnovate. Our technology is also a cornerstone of the Sulabhmovement—it has now gained almost universal acceptanceand we’ve kept it patent-free to ensure that it benefits morepeople.Integrity in our work is also a big factor. We do not misusea single farthing entrusted to our care, we use only the bestmaterials the funds available can buy, we operate on thebasis of transparency, we do not receive donations or grantsfrom governments or donors so there is less interference inour work, and we have remained a non-partisanorganization. As such, people trust our work and continue toseek our help.Sulabh also has a dense and diverse network of volunteersdedicated to spreading the movement. We haveadministrators, financial and management experts,engineers, architects, sociologists, scientists, and peoplefrom the media.The one weakness I would mention is related to the factthat we do not take financial assistance. This has limited ourability to reach a larger number of people. 

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