“Nobody should go outside for defecation and every house in India should have a toilet.” – Bindeshwar Pathak
An Indian Sociologist, social entrepreneur, and the founder of Sulabh International, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak. He is widely recognized in India and around the world for dedicating his life to build a nationwide sanitation movement spanning over five decades. His contribution has made a critical difference in the lives of millions of severely disadvantaged poor who couldn’t afford toilets, and those who worked as manual scavengers and hence faced severe discrimination in the society owing to their low caste.
Dr. Pathak was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, subsequently, his work and ethos have intrinsically contributed to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. In the last 50 years, he has worked tirelessly for the human rights of the manual scavengers who clean dry latrines, come from the lowest stratum of India’s caste-based system, and are mostly women. His actions aimed at rehabilitating manual scavengers, restoring their dignity by providing alternative employment through skill development presents an inspiring example of promoting peace, tolerance, and empowerment by non-violent means.
Dr. Pathak truly learned to become a leader from his mother. From her, he learned to give without expecting anything in return, he ingrained these values early on in life. She would say, “It is said a man is not born for himself but others.” Honesty and integrity have been his guiding principle throughout his life and career.
Sulabh International, the prestigious organization that he founded was built through enterprise and tenacity embedded in those values.
Dr. Pathak spent all his childhood and adolescent years in the village where he completed his school education. He later moved to the capital Patna and enrolled in B.N. College from where he graduated in sociology. After completing his studies, he worked as a teacher for a while before joining the Gandhi Centenary Committee in Patna as a volunteer. This was not his original plan though, he initially wanted to study a master’s in criminology from Sagar University in Madhya Pradesh. However, when he approached the committee, he learned that there was no job. Since he had missed the deadline for admission. Therefore, he continued to work as a volunteer. By the time Dr. Pathak got married and completed his advanced degree, he found that Sulabh International was just taking off.
While working for the Bihar Gandhi Centenary committee, Dr. Pathak was asked by the General Secretary of the organization, Saryu Prasad, to work for the restoration of human rights and dignity of untouchables- he was sent to a town called Betiah.
His childhood memories came alive when he was called Betiah in Bihar. Here, he saw the magnitude of the problems first hand: the community of manual scavengers – also known as untouchables were brutally treated and almost condemned to live an inhuman life. One incident, in particular, left a lasting impression:
In an interview Dr. Pathak says, “One day, whilst working there I witnessed a harrowing incident. I saw a bull attacking a boy in a red shirt. When people rushed to save him, somebody yelled that he was untouchable. The crowd instantly abandoned him and left him to die.” Dr.Pathak added, “This tragic and unjust incident had shaken my conscience to the core. That day, I took a vow to fulfill the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi, which is to fight for the rights of untouchables but also to champion the cause of human dignity and equality in my country and around the world. This became my mission.”
In 1968, troubled by pathetic conditions of the untouchables, and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy and teachings, Dr.Pathak came up with a technology that could replace dry latrines. He hoped that this technology would eventually bring an end to the problem of cleaning bucket toilets by the community of untouchables in India.
His idea was not just to provide a solution but to liberate the society that remained imprisoned in the formulaic traditions. I was determined to restore the dignity of manual scavengers that they were deprived of. He says, “For these women, their freedom, voice, and basic human rights were forfeited the moment they were perceived to belong to the lowest stratum of India’s caste-based society. By the virtue of their birth, they worked as manual scavengers, cleaned dry latrines, and faced severe social discrimination.”
I took a resolution to free those (manual scavengers) from the shackles of modern-day slavery and dedicated my life to this cause. I invented a sustainable technology known as a two-pit pour-flush toilet, which could replace the bucket toilets that need manual scavengers for cleaning them and eventually bring an end to this inhumane practice.
Dr.Pathak was convinced that to liberate manual scavengers of their inhuman occupation every household had to have a proper toilet. In those days in Indian villages, most households simply didn’t have a toilet. Households that had a toilet were dry latrines that had to be manually cleaned by the “untouchables.”
Open defecation was a common phenomenon. Women were the worst sufferers. They had to go out for defecation in the cover of the dark – early morning or after sunset – and hence ran a very high risk of being exposed to crime, snake bites, and even animal attacks. Lack of toilets exposed children to diarrhoeal diseases and scores died before attaining the age of five. The concept of public toilets was non-existent.
Despite these huge social challenges, Dr.Pathak’s project was initially a non-starter and got entangled in perennial bureaucratic processes. Pathak was undeterred.
He sold a piece of land, his wife’s ornaments, and even borrowed money from friends to run the organization. As per his biography, “At times I even contemplated suicide. Since I had no money, I slept on railway platforms and often skipped meals. For long, there was no sight of any work. I was going through a miserable phase and was on the verge of a breakdown.”
But during this phase of the struggle, Pathak received an important piece of advice: in 1971, one civil servant who had reviewed Pathak’s file pending with the government for approval of funds was impressed by his noble cause and the massive impact that it was likely to create in resolving India’s sanitation problems. He advised that instead of asking for grants, Sulabh should take money for implementing projects and, from the savings run the organization. This way the organization would be sustainable and that way it would be more likely to be awarded government contracts.
The Sulabh Sanitation Movement was not just about sanitation but it was about human rights framing to sanitation. Dr. Pathak was determined to change the discriminatory social structures that prohibited manual scavengers from entering temples. In 1988, Dr. Pathak led a group of manual scavengers to the Nathdwara temples along with a group of Brahmins to perform rites and rituals. Initially, there was resistance from the people and they denied them entry into the temples. Instead of taking a confrontationist attitude, Pathak took the path of persuasion and successfully convinced the priests to let them in. It was a historic step. This unprecedented step was widely hailed. Pathak and the group were given an audience by the then President Venkataraman, Vice-President, Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, and Prime Minister.
In 1991, Dr. Pathak was awarded the Padma Bhushan for his monumental work for liberating and rehabilitating manual scavengers and also for preventing environmental pollution by providing pour-flush toilet technology which served as an alternative to dry latrines.
Shortly after that in 1992, he was bestowed with The International Saint Francis Prize for the Environment – Canticle of All Creatures by Pope John Paul II. The jury in a statement that Dr. Pathak was unanimously chosen for the “comprehensive and interdependent nature of his environmental and social commitment to the human responsibility of the earth.”
Over the years, his actions have had a large implication in altering the process of inheriting an inhuman occupation based on caste. Through his leadership and vision, he provided support and inspiration to the marginalized manual scavengers and put them on the path of social mobility, especially in the two towns of Alwar and Tonk. He rehabilitated former manual scavengers and trained them as beauticians or in food processing, sewing, or embroidery. They have also taken courses in personality development. These factors largely contributed to their economic empowerment – making them self-reliant and helped them live with dignity in society. Further, Dr. Pathak set up a school and a vocational training center in New Delhi that offers modern education to former manual scavengers and their children. His sanitation movement is largely helping change the mind-set of the society towards health, equality and dignity, and the rights of women and girls.
He championed the need for toilets in schools. Today, in many parts of India, the attendance of girl students in schools has remarkably improved due to toilets but more needs to be done. Sulabh International, under his leadership, has been playing an instrumental role in fulfilling the dream of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make India a clean country. Recognizing its efforts Sulabh was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize for implementing the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign).
Dr. Pathak’s humanistic actions have changed the lives of thousands of men, women, and children in India, who can live a life of dignity. Pathak says, ‘God helps people to help others. Change in society is possible if we become the agent of change. We need the collective action of everyone to reform the unjust practices of our society.’
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, “I am the son of the son of Mahatma Gandhi but Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is the son of his soul. If we were to go to meet M.K. Gandhi, he would first greet Dr.Pathak for the noble work that he is doing and then meet me.”