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Making toilet a tool of social change, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, has brought a sanitation movement in India and has touched countless lives by restoring dignity of labour.

He is a Brahmin who was asked not to mingle with the untouchables. He did not conform.

His grandmother made him swallow cow’s urine and dung to purify him after he touched an untouchable. He did not conform.

His father-in-law accused him of destroying his daughter’s life by living with the untouchables. He did not conform.

To this social prison created by the haves against have-nots, he did not conform.

To the 'self-proclaimed' upper caste who keep a dog in their lap but refrain from touching a fellow human being, he did not conform.

A non-conformist at heart, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, instead, empowered millions of untouchables who were bounded to their ‘traditional occupation’ of manual scavenging. Belonging to what was formerly called the Bhangi community to be later acknowledges as Balmikis to now being assimilated in the society as equals, this 71-year-old social revolutionary has seen the transformation closely.

Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, a sanitation movement, started by Pathak has successfully constructed 1.3 million toilets, impacted over 640 towns and liberated lakhs of families which were chained to the profession of manual scavenging. Though  correct number of manual scavengers in India is hard to find but as per the official statistics, there are about 3 lakh 40 thousand people who work as manual scavengers in India.

In a no-holds-barred chat with Kunal Ranjan and Richa Taneja, he shares how he found his life’s mission and never looked back.

Did you always want to work for manual scavengers?

I think not. As a child, I used to see bucket pots in toilets, but never saw the women who manually emptied them. I once touched an untouchable lady while I was a child and my grandmother forced me swallow cow dung and drink cow’s urine to purify me. This incident always haunted me.

Switching over to the work with untouchables was rather incidental. In the late sixties, I joined Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee. Its General Secretary wanted me to find out a way to restore the human rights of the ‘bhangis’ and bring them at par with others.  I was very sceptical, and said, “Sir, I am a Brahmin by birth. Moreover, I am not an engineer. Unless I give an alternative to bucket (dry) toilets, how can I say people will not use bucket toilets?” But my General Secretary said that you have to do it, and I had no alternative.

To build rapport with the untouchables, I went to live with their community in Bettiah, Bihar for three months.

Did your family oppose your choice?

My father was very sad, and the Brahmin community was totally against me. My father-in-law said that you have destroyed the life of my daughter. He said, “I have brought her up with a lot of love and affection. People would ask me what does your son-in-law do? Would I have to say that you live with the untouchables”?  I once, politely replied him, “Look, I have started turning over the pages of stiff India, I may succeed, or I may not.”

What could have been a three-month job, turned into your life’s mission, what led to this turn of event?

I wasn’t sure I would continue but while my stay at Bettiah, a newly married girl was being forced to go to Bettiah town to clean the toilets. She was crying bitterly and begging her mother-in-law not to send her. I was living in the neighbourhood and quickly reached the site. When I intervened, the girl's mother-in-law said “I can leave her today, but what will she do? If she sells vegetables from tomorrow, who will buy from her hand?” I had no answer. In a physical prison, you are released after serving the sentence, but in this social prison there is no such release.

Are manual scavengers mostly women?

Yes. Initially, the men and women in the profession were almost equal. But gradually, men started shifting to other jobs like manual labour, cleaning of drains and other things. At present, nearly eighty percent of the manual scavengers are female.

Why has the Government of India not been able to eradicate manual scavenging?

Law has not been effective in eradicating manual scavenging. I got an ordinance promulgated in 1972 in Bihar and the Government of India Act was made in 1993 which declared employment of manual scavengers and construction of dry latrines a punishable offence. To my utter surprise, not a single person has been prosecuted and the practice of manual scavenging still exists. The government has now enacted one more law in 2013 in this regard.

The current Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, has taken the bold step of talking about the toilets in rural areas necessary from the Red Fort. Only a 'son of India' can take such a bold step. He has given five years time to make India clean.

Do you think that just by replacing the dry toilets by flush toilets, we can completely eradicate the practice of manual scavengers?

Yes, but that is just the first step. With our constant efforts, we have been able to free two towns of Tonk and Alwar from manual scavenging. First, we got the all the bucket toilets converted into Sulabh Sauchalayas. We started teaching English and Hindi to the manual scavengers. After that, we gave vocational training to them to make noodles, pickles, beauty care, carpet making, tailoring, fashion designing. They have become self reliant. Earlier they used to earn Rs 200 to Rs 300 per month. Now they are able to earn eight to ten thousand rupees per month.  We also provide a stipend of Rs 3500 to each of the relocated manual scavenger.

Any fond memories from your struggle?

In 2003, I took a group of manual scavengers to a 5-star hotel in Delhi for dinner. The General Manager came rushing to me and said, “What will people say when they come to know that they are untouchables?” I insisted and we went inside to have dinner. I did all this only to show to them that you can also come here. Similarly, others who are inside the hotel can see and say, “Oh they are here. They are like us. This was done to break the social barrier.” Later the manager apologised for his action.

Has that barrier been broken now? Are the Balmikis now more accepted by the Upper caste?

In 1934, in Orissa, Gandhi had invited upper caste people to have dinner with the Balmiki community, but they refused.  So Gandhi had written, “Indians are ready to face the bullets of the Britishers, but they are unable to eat with their fellow untouchables because of fear from Brahmins.”

But today, we have been able to change the mindset.

Look at what has happened in two towns of Rajasthan – Alwar and Tonk, where we have been working for years. The erstwhile untouchables go to same families of upper caste people and sell noodles and pickles and do facials of the women. I tell to these ladies to twist the cheeks of the high caste ladies after their facial is done. If the high caste ladies ask, tell them jokingly that with these very hands you refused to take water and food, are now these are the same hands polishing your cheeks! This slight twist is a gentle reminder to them.

Which has been the biggest moment in your life?

When I used to meet people for having clean toilets in 1968, people used to say embarrassing things. “Pathak ji, have you come here to talk of toilets? Have one cup tea with us. How will we next have tea with you?” Today, my happiness knows no bounds when the Prime Minister of the country addressed the issue from the Red Fort. After Gandhi, he is the first person of such a great stature to speak about toilets. When I started working for the untouchables, my fellow villagers said, “Our Genius has been spoiled”. Today, they say “A genius cannot be spoilt.”

The new government wants to make India free from open defecation by building toilets on Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. How can it happen?

The government should first train 50,000 volunteers for this purpose.  There are approximately 2.5 lakh panchayats,  each volunteer can be entrusted to get toilets for 5 panchayats (about 20-25 villages) in the five year timeframe.  This will also boost the local employment.

Since bureaucratic processes in our country are sluggish, the subsidy granted to build these toilets may take two years to reach the beneficiaries. Thus, banks should be given loan to the ones who need to build these toilets.

When the toilet is built, the subsidy that is received would be used to payback the loan that was taken from the bank. The rest of the amount (interest incurred or any additional maintenance charges) can be paid by the customers in easy installments. If the work is given to Sulabh, we are sure to pull it off as we have the needed experience. Our blueprint is very simple and we are confident that the current government can achieve its set target within the deadline.

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