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The man behind Sulabh Shauchalayas has transformed thousands of lives by helping people build toilets in their homes

Freedom from open defecation | Bindeshwar Pathak

Vijaylakshmi was 14 when she came to Hirmathla village in Mewat district, Haryana, from Rajasthan. The first lesson she learnt at her marital home was to wake up at 4am every day and leave the house with a lota in her hand, accompanied by her mother-in-law, in order to defecate. She could almost never go out to relieve herself during the day and had to wait 12-14 hours before she would be herded out again in the evening to “relieve the pressure”. Vijaylakshmi’s parents had a toilet in their home.

In 2011, 18 years later, Vijaylakshmi’s house got its first Sulabh toilet. Today, most of the 146 homes in this village, a 90-minute drive down Sohna-Gurgaon Road, have at least one Sulabh toilet. Some have two, three or four, depending on the number of daughters-in-law in the house.

In Hirmathla, each 4×3 and a half x 6ft Sulabh toilet cost around Rs.15,000, with Rs.12,000 donated by RailTel Corporation of India as part of its corporate social responsibility initiative and Rs.3,000 contributed by the householder. The toilets have a stone slab for a roof, a flimsy aluminium door, a pot at a 28-30 degrees slant, and no flushing facility. Yet Vijaylakshmi, her sister-in-law Shakuntala, and their mother in-law are happy. Vijaylakshmi says she doesn’t get as many headaches as she used to, nor does she fear being stoned or grabbed when she “relieves pressure”. Shakuntala can sleep until 6am, and their mother-in-law is thrilled that she no longer has to stand guard while others defecate.

The sarpanch (village head) Mammandin (who uses only one name) has announced that he will fine anyone found defecating in the open. In 2012, the village received the Nirmal Gram award, given to villages that are fully sanitized and free of open defecation, and Mammandin is determined not to tarnish that record.

Bindeshwar Pathak, 71, the man responsible for this transformation, listens with amusement and pride. He founded the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement in 1970, and developed the Sulabh Shauchalaya System (a low-cost, two-pit toilet technology that uses a litre of water), spending more than four decades trying to get people to make and use toilets in their homes and eradicate the practice of manual scavenging. Yet he says he learns something new every time he meets people who are using Sulabh toilets.


"Stopping defecation in the open will not only mean better health for people, but will also be an important factor in curtailing rapes in rural India."

Mammandin’s stance impresses him, but he has also discovered that some of Hirmathla’s girls, married outside the village, are struggling because their marital homes lack toilets. “Get the names of the girls and the villages they are in. We must get toilets built there right away,” he instructs Sulabh’s project in-charge and motivator for Hirmathla.

“The lack of toilets and defecating in the open has its roots in our cultural practices. For Hindus, old texts like the Devi Puran advocated shauch (defecation) as far from the house as possible. For Muslims, since they came in as rulers, access to manual scavengers to clean up after them was easy, and so even though they had toilets, there was no need for them to incorporate a system which did not require manual cleaning,” says Pathak, dressed in his trademark wine-red Nehru jacket and crisp white kurta-pyjama.

A Brahmin by birth and a landowner from Bihar, Pathak, who has been awarded the Padma Bhushan (1991) and the Stockholm Water Prize (2009), says there was no toilet in his home when he was growing up—it was, incidentally, large enough to accommodate a temple and a water well. He did stints as a schoolteacher and a travelling salesman for his family’s home-grown Ayurvedic medicine before being enticed into taking up a job in Patna for Rs.600-a-month with the Bihar Gandhi centenary celebrations committee. The job, as the publicity in-charge, was temporary and didn’t pay Rs.600, but he stayed on.

It was there that Pathak was introduced to the Bhangi Mukti (or liberate manual scavengers) movement and Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas on sanitation. “Non-violence, satyagraha, so many things that Gandhi taught have been reiterated over and over again, but not many people picked up the cause of bhangis, of sanitation, of not defecating in the open,” says Pathak. “Stopping defecation in the open will not only mean better health for people but will also be an important factor in curtailing rapes in rural India,” he adds, explaining why he decided to build 106 toilets, one in every house, in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, on a war footing after the rape and hanging of two girls in May. Most of these will be ready by the end of August.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 600 million Indians deposit 65 million tonnes of human waste in the open every day. The 2011 Census of India found that 53% of Indian households do not have toilets. In villages, the figure is higher: 59.4% of rural India practises open defecation, according to December data from the National Sample Survey Office. The census also found that the country needs 115 million toilets—and if Parliament is serious about eradicating open defecation by 2019, there is a lot of work to be done.

“My only advice is, don’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” says Pathak, rattling off a few that sanitation activists have combated through the 1980s and 1990s: allocating a pittance for toilets, restricting help to those below the poverty line (BPL), not giving bank loans for building toilets, not adopting the two-pit toilet system, not having motivators and regular follows-ups to see if the toilets are in working condition, and not pushing for the beneficiary to be responsible for some part of the toilet-building process.

“Over the years, we have seen that if you get the two-three sampan (well-to-do) people in a village to build a toilet in their home, it becomes easier to convince the rest. Don’t leave the leader out of the equation because he is the influencer and his actions are inspirational. This has to be a trickle-down, not a bottom-to-up revolution,” says Pathak.

He is also a great advocate of motivation and follow-ups. According to the 2011 census, India has 5,924 sub-districts (that includes blocks and tehsils). “If each block trains five people—one person for five-six panchayats, i.e. about 25-30 villages—you can have a mini-army of about 30,000 motivators who can work not just to encourage the building of toilets, but also be trained to talk about health benefits. They must also have access to resources to get the toilets fixed if something goes wrong. This is very important since most people will be first- time users and have to be trained to maintain a toilet,” says Pathak.

One of the most common reasons that toilets in rural India become dysfunctional is that balls, debris, rocks or pieces of cloth, etc, block the pipes. “We need people to help villagers deal with these problems. The pit we build in villages is not cemented at the bottom. This allows human excreta to decompose and prevents build-up of toxic gases, which are so common in septic tanks. Each pit takes about four-five years to fill up and once it is closed off, the second pit can be put in use while faeces decompose in the first one,” explains Pathak, adding that he hopes the new Union rural development minister, Nitin Gadkari, will look into a Sulabh proposal to train motivators as health workers. He is yet to pursue this with Gadkari.

Where toilets cost less than Rs.20,000, Pathak believes the onus of getting the material should rest with the householder, while construction should be the job of a government-appointed agency. “If an NGO or a thekedar (contractor) makes the toilet from start to finish, there will be complaints about the material used. Lend the money to the householder directly though a bank to get the material and help him find a trained mason (through an NGO or agency). Let the householder have a stak e in his toilet.”

At Hirmathla, Pathak’s sustained effort is paying off. Yunus, an autorickshaw driver, is getting a fourth toilet constructed on his family’s 60x90ft plot. Isn’t that too many for such a small plot?

“No, no. There are five brothers (33 family members live on that plot), each with a separate kitchen and a small hutment to their name. Why should each family not have a toilet of their own? The daughters-in-law feel more comfortable taking care of the toilet demarcated as theirs and the children will not be tempted to defecate in the open if they don’t have to wait in a long line at home,” says Pathak.

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