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An interview with Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International
Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, an NGO, founded in 1970 has become a known name for people especially in North India. It works towards the improvement of sanitation and scavengers in India. They developed toilet facilities, which do not require scavenging to clean.

Go to a railways station, bus station or a shining Delhi metro station, the one common thing visible everywhere is the availability of Sulabh toilets for use by the public after paying a nominal charge.

Thanks to Sulabh toilets that a huge population of homeless people in urban areas do not face problem when it is about addressing nature's call.

In an emailed interview to merinews.com, founder of Sulabh International Bindeshwar Pathak shared his story about what made him to come out with this noble concept. Here's excerpts from the interview.

Question (Q): How this idea of setting up Sulabh International Social Service Organisation came into your mind? What were the problems that came during the early days of Sulabh?

Bindesjwar PathakBindeshwar Pathak (BP): The answer to what made me establish Sulabh is that during childhood and formative years of my life, belonging to an orthodox Brahmin family and living in a village I saw the elders and specially women of the family, including my mother and aunts being constrained to rise early in the morning and go out to the fields to ease themselves, and undergo the pain and unpleasantness of holding back the urge to evacuate during the day and wait till dark to go out to answer call of nature. I did not feel happy about all this. Secondly as a child I saw the person who used to come to clean the house being shunned and all of us being told not to touch because he was an untouchable.

However, curiosity getting the better of me I wanted to know what would happen if I touched him and therefore I did so. The consequence was outbreak of bedlam because my grandma who saw me in the process of my unholy act of touching the untouchable went into conniption fit and forced me to undergo purification ritual of swallowing urine, sand and Ganges water. I felt humiliated and almost an outcaste myself. The painful memory still lingers.

Later, when I started my career joining the Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee I was assigned the desk dealing with the issue of untouchability and scavengers, (a class of persons who manually clean excreta of others). When the time came of the Committee being wound up, I went to live in a colony of scavengers in Bettiah, a town in Bihar. There two incidents occurred which deserve to be mentioned here. The first one was when hearing the wail of a woman scavenger, I learnt on enquiry that she was a young bride who was being forced to go to do scavenging with the guilty being the in-laws and her husband too.

Pleading on her behalf I was told that if she does not do scavenging she will not be able to earn anything and I was forced to withdraw on being asked what solution I had, to which my answer was in the negative. The second incident related to a young boy being gored by a bull and the crowd gathering to help him but withdrawing learning that the boy was an untouchable. Our effort to take him to hospital for treatment proved to be of no avail because he died on way.

These experiences and incidents firmed my resolve to make it my mission to see that untouchability is mitigated and the obnoxious practice of defecating in the open is eliminated. I would like to add that the figure which loomed large behind my resolve was that of Mahatma Gandhi who was the person who had first stirred the conscience of the Nation against the evils mentioned above.

The problems which initially arose in establishing this organisation concerned the necessity of evolving a technology which would help in eradication of the evil of defecation in the open. Added to this was lack of awareness and absence of a sense of priority being accorded to the problems. It was one Mr. Nath an IAS officer who convinced me that it would be better to undertake construction of toilets, based on a design devised by me, by taking money from the beneficiaries to execute the work rather than depending upon grants from the Government receipt of which on yearly basis was uncertain.

As regards technology, I invented the two pit pour flush compost toilet which dispenses with the necessity of engaging persons to clean bucket toilets which then were in vogue. Undertaking construction of toilets on project basis by persuading beneficiaries to avail of funds under the loan cum subsidy scheme of the Government for construction of toilets helped us to make the work a success. We combined the strategy with a good efficient delivery mechanism. But all this required a great deal of effort moving from house to house motivating people overcoming their reluctance to install toilets in their houses.

For the public I started constructing and maintaining public toilets on pay & use basis. To make their working more efficient, attachment of biogas plant was done to the toilet complex and the plant is then linked with Sulabh Effluent Treatment device. This results in production of biogas which can be used for lighting and cooking purposes and through the effluent treatment plant the toilet effluent is purified to the extent of reducing its BOD, from the accepted level of 30 mg/l to less than 10 mg/l with the treated effluent fit enough to be discharged in any water body without causing pollution and for being used for horticultural and agricultural purposes.

Q: Now the name Sulabh has become very prominent, synonymous to public utilities. What are the challenges that you are facing in the smooth running of this organisation?

BP: In the smooth running of the organisation the main problems faced are of inadequate funding, coupled with lack of awareness and advocacy as also of a sense of priority in favour of toilet related sanitation. Commercial banks should readily come forth to give loans for the purpose of construction of toilets as it is not a common practice. In fact it is rare. Even in the subsidy scheme it is denied to persons beyond a certain level of income. This has adversely affected popularization of the programme of construction of toilets. Instead, I feel, a minimum level of subsidy may be given to anyone desirous of availing it where after leaving it to him to construct a toilet according to his means. Also the practice of revenue sharing even when a toilet is handed over to an organisation after auction has not been very helpful. Evidently toilet construction is not treated as a welfare measure of sufficient importance.

Q: You have dedicated Sulabh International to Gandhian ideology of emancipation of scavengers. In 2013, actor Amir Khan also took an initiative and spurned the theory which is totally against scavengers or untouchables. What you feel about the initiative of eminent people toward the abolishment of manual scavenging. Are the initiatives enough? 

BP: The TV programme on abolishment of manual scavenging initiated by Shri Amir Khan, no doubt was commendable. However, a feeling prevails that in the programme though problems were mentioned, rather highlighted, hardly any solution was offered. I am not aware if Shri Khan spurned a theory against scavengers or untouchables.

While dealing with the issues of scavenging and untouchability what really is required is taking concrete measures to eliminate these practices. It can be done by implementing a suitable technology as I have done and by carrying out programmes which can make them economically self-reliant which also I have done by implementing skill imparting training programmes.. It is also necessary that steps should be taken to integrate these persons viz scavengers and the untouchables with the mainstream of society, ensure their unhindered temple entry, popularise their sharing of meals with others and initiate some measures which can enhance their social status and help in changing the thoughts and behavior of people in general with a view to their being acceptance in day today social life.

Q: Manual cleaning seems quite impossible in Railways. The human waste is dumped on railways tracks only. We have heard that Sulabh has proposed a plan to get rid of the filth on railway tracks and stations. Can you tell us something about the technology you have come out with? 

BP: I have attended a few meetings of concerned authorities where discussions have taken place about the measures that should be adopted to ensure the railway tracks are not dirtied by human waste finding its way to and on the railway tracks. Besides solutions suggested by others like that of installing biotech toilets, I have suggested that detachable containers should be installed beneath the train's coaches in which human waste can first be collected and then emptied at junction stations and then be carried to a nearby biogas plant. Biogas from human waste produced therein can be utilized for purposes of lighting the railway yard or houses nearby.

Q: In rural areas there is lack of toilets in households, which forces women to go out to address nature's call. After the the infamous Badaun rape and double murder case in UP, Sulabh has taken the responsibility constructing toilets at each of the households in Katra Shahadat village. But what about other villages? Any idea that you can suggest to the government? 

BP: As regards other villages, surely Sulabh cannot take up installation of toilets in village after village. It should be remembered that Sulabh is an NGO and its resources are not unlimited. It can at best construct toilets in a village or two from its own resources by way of demonstration projects which can show the way but not substitute an effort or a programme on a national scale. Government, of late has been doing a great deal in popularizing the programme of construction of toilets. It has spread awareness and initiated the popular Nirmal Gram Yojana and provides funds to the Panchayats. What really is required is to convert this effort into a movement. Perhaps the Prime Minister's exhortation of first a toilet and then a temple will catch on and revolutionize the effort of making "toilets for all" a reality.

Q: In villages there are open fields where people go to address nature's call, but in urban areas the situation is more worse as there are neither open areas nor sufficient, hygienic public toilets. The women population is the worst sufferer. What is the best way through which this problem of lack of public toilets in urban areas can be addressed?

BP: In urban areas there is need for more public toilets to be run on pay and use basis. Sulabh is maintaining nearly 8000 toilets all over the country. Given a chance we can do much more. What is needed is more public toilets. In Master Plans of towns/cities place for construction of toilets should be earmarked. In every public place, hotels, restaurants, malls, parks provision of a toilet should be made mandatory.

Q: What is the ultimate dream of Sulabh International? 

BP: All I can say is ? more power to the Movement. This can be done by greater advocacy, providing more funds, according greater priority, creating more awareness and not only by the governments but also by society itself. I feel that the slogan should be 'toilet to temple' rather than 'temple to toilet'. Let all be welcome to join the drive to have more and more toilets and to see the day when there is no one to be seen on the road doing 'their business'. It is only then that dream will become a reality.

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