The Story of My Life and Struggle:

Sulabh Social and Sanitation Movement



Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak*
Ph.D., D.Litt.

I am enormously grateful to S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai, one of India’s leading Business schools, and itsvibrant Centre for Development of Corporate Citizenship (DOCC) for giving me this honourand opportunity under its annual flagship programme Heroes Speak to recount the story of my social engagement, commitment and accomplishments of almost half a century. DOCC, as I am informed, is a pioneeringventure to sensitize the management students so as to understand the sociological underpinning of the marginalized sections of society and provide management inputs to the social sector in rural India. This is a public-spirited and noble initiative,and I take this opportunity to applaud this centre of excellence and especially its dynamic Chairperson Dr. Nirja Mattoofor the brilliant and admirable work.

As someone who has been working ceaselessly for the last 47 years in the social and sanitation sector in India through pioneering a movement that has come to be known as Sulabh, my life and the movement has become one and inseparable. As various aspects of my personal and social life have impacted the movement in various ways, the story of Sulabh often converges and merges with my own life story. Before I open up about the movement and share with this discerning gathering some of myexperiences and insights, I would like to emphasize that the journey of my learning and striving for the social causestill continues, asI keep pushing the envelope by constantly aiming for more challenging goals.It is often said that behind every accomplishment there is a story of grit, determination and struggle, but it needs to be equally recognized that every new success or triumph brings with it more social responsibility. As a seasoned traveller who has seen enough ups and downs of life, I would like to suggest, especially to our young professionals and budding entrepreneurs assembled here, that there is more thrill in the journey than in reaching the destination.

Way back in 1970, when I was 27 year-old, I hesitantly laid the foundation stone of Sulabh to lead a movement for restoration of human rights and dignity to the scavenging dalits and ensuring clean environment through a safe and hygienic human waste disposal system for millions of Indians who defecate in the open. At that time it seemed a mad venture, an impossible task, but because I persisted and refused to give up, Sulabh made the crucial breakthroughs at crucial times and went on achieving one success after another. In fact, our achievements over the years surpassed our own expectations. Sulabh has been able to liberate and rehabilitate over one million scavenging dalits with the invention and diffusion of an appropriate toilet technology known as Sulabh Shauchalaya, recognized now as one of the best global technologies for disposal of human waste, and we have constructedover 1.3 million household toilets as well as 8,000 pay-and-use toilet complexes being used daily by over 15 million people. Sulabh brought this quiet revolution through combining technological innovations with effective actions of social reforms and community mobilization. Though the manual scavenging still continues in some parts of the country and a large number of Indians still lack access to toilets, as can be seen in the need for the ongoing Swachh Bharat Mission, I can say with some satisfaction that Sulabh has shown the way how to overcome the problem.

Sulabh is a movement for social transformation

In the popular mind Sulabh evokes the image of a toilet, or at the best some thoughts about its sanitation work. But Sulabh is, first and foremost, a social movement—as it is an organized collective action, guided by an emancipatory ideology and supported by an organizational structure—at the core of which is not toilet construction, but a vision and commitment for social transformation. The toilets, biogas plants, and other sanitary measures are means to bring about the desired transformation. Our primary commitment is to emancipate those who occupy the lowest rung of caste hierarchy and traditionally clean the excreta of others. Emancipating the most marginalized is perhaps the most challenging task, as it requires major social churning and change. For structural reasons, the lowest in caste-class hierarchy cannot be emancipated unless the entire society is unshackled and emancipated. And this is the challenge Sulabh has taken up.

In my view, Sulabh’s main achievement has been in rousing the people’s conscience and changing their caste-ridden mindset for raising the status of former untouchables on a par with the privileged castes and communities. We have been able to achieve this through our pragmatic approach that combines an application of technology and innovation with initiatives of cultural reforms and social solidarity. This approach involves the imagination and commitment to liberate the dalits as well as set free the rest of society from their caste prejudice—which also shows the way to ingeniously resolve other problems afflicting our society.

The incident that opened my eyesto the cruelty of caste

Before I come to the point of how did the movement start and gathered momentum, let me recount a harrowing incident from my childhood, which consciously or subliminally impacted my future work as a social reformer and sanitation campaigner. Born in a well-off Brahmin family in a Bihar village in the early 1940s, I grew up in a sprawling home—nine rooms, but no toilet. My first memory of a “toilet” was a puccapakhana, a sort of “service latrine”, used by the village zamindar, some distance from my home. The stench emanating from it was so strong that we had to hold our breath whenever we passed by it. An untouchable woman who lived outside the village would clean it manually from time to time. When I was six or so, I touched that untouchable woman—perhaps the child in me wanted to know “what will happen if I touch the untouchable!” My grandmother, a strict believer in the rules of purity and pollution, was shell-shocked. She decided to purify her errant grandchild: she forced me to swallow cowdung mixed with cow’s urine, and bathed me in the water from river Ganga. I still remember this traumatic incident—a lump of nauseating cowdung and cow’s urine being thrust in my tiny mouth which I desperately wanted to throw out but was forced to swallow to make me pure and whole again. Its rotten taste—though at the time I was not aware of the terrible discrimination against the untouchables that this incident signified—still lingers in my mouth and mind.

Incidents like this remained dormant in my consciousness for many years, but their terrible meaning hit me with full force when (after doing my graduation in sociology from Patna University) chance brought me to work as a volunteer of the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee in 1968–69. This Committee, as a mark of tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, had formed a cell with the objective of freeing the Bhangis—a group of scavenging untouchables (now called Valmikis)—from their disgusting occupation of cleaning human excreta and restoring their dignity and human rights. Seeing some spark in my youthful eyes, the Committee entrusted me to explore a better and hygienic scavenging system, preferably a safe and affordable toilet technology, and more dauntingly, to find a way to bring the scavenging dalits in the social mainstream.

For this challenge I was totally unprepared. Uncertainties about this mission and personal worries of career and future weighted heavily on me. But the combined force of circumstances, my inner voice or some higher power made me accept the daunting assignment. At that time, it was a mad career move on the part of an educated young man from an upper-caste family. But the misadventure brought a decisive change in my personality and altered the course of my life.

How the steel was tempered against social evils

The turning point came when, on the suggestion of an elderly member of the Gandhi Centenary Committee, I went to live in a slum of scavenging dalits in Bettiah town of Bihar for three months. The idea was to experience first-hand their dehumanizing work, and identify with their pain and problems before making any attempt to liberate them. At that time, India was far more callous and casteist than it is now. Two heart-breaking incidents from those three months opened my eyes to the institutionalized cruelties of caste. The first incident concerned a Valmiki family I was staying with. I saw a newly-wed woman being forced by her mother-in-law and husband to go out and clean the latrine. Being brutally dragged from her room to the outside, the young bride was crying and resisting, but finally gave in and took up the dirty bucket and broom; she had no choice. The second incident took place after a week or so of the first one. A bull charged towards a youngster in the marketplace; many people rushed to save him, and then someone shouted, “This boy is from the Bhangi colony!” Suddenly the crowd dispersed. A friend of mine and I were passing by, and we tried to save the boy. With some bricks lying on the road, we managed to scare off the rampaging bull. But the boy was grievously injured, and died on the way to the hospital.

Those brutalities shook me to the core. I decided to devote my life to the cause of scavenging dalits, disregarding the taunts and insults that greeted me from all sides. The fellow Brahmins would sneer, “HaanbhaiBhangi-ji, aaiye … Please come, Mr. Scavenger. We have heard that these days you are doing the work of a scavenger.” By this time I was also married. My father was distraught by the perilous path I had chosen, but more distressed was my father-in-law: “What will happen to my daughter?” But my wife stood with me in this difficult time, and I threw myself into the work whole-heartedly.

I was inspired by the Gandhian ideal of emancipating the scavenging dalits by peaceful means, but I soon realized that this ideal would remain merely a slogan until a viable action plan, backed by technological support, is evolved and implemented. My tenure at the Gandhi Centenary Programme taught me that till the bucket latrines exist, manual scavenging cannot be eliminated, and by implication, the scavenging dalits cannot be emancipated from their dehumanizing occupation. This clear-mindedness led straight to the two tough questions that stared me in the face: how to overcome the violence of caste through non-violent means; and, how to develop an effective and affordable toilet system (as an alternative to the expensive Western-style flush toilet and centralized water-borne sewage system) so that manual scavenging could be eliminated and the scavenging dalits freed and rehabilitated in other gainful occupation.

Holistic approach shifted the paradigm

The situation in which millions of people defecate in the open and a class of people clean excreta with their bare hands made me not only grasp that sanitation is a hugely important matter but also the fact that social and sanitation issues are deeply interlinked. I realized that fostering social reform as well as innovating an appropriate toilet technology was essential for an effective solution to the social and sanitary problems. Grasping this fact and through sheer hard work, intense research and the crucial help of a WHO handbook on the subject, I innovated in 1968 a two-pit, pour-flush, on-site compost toilet (which could easily be constructed from locally available materials and thus with minimum cost), which was later recognized nationally and internationally as one of the best global technologies for safe disposal of human waste. But then I had to struggle a lot for the first opening to show the appropriateness of the technology. My opportunity came in 1973, when the Arrah municipality in Bihar allowed me to put two toilets in its compound for demonstration. The toilets worked well, and caught the people’s attention. Spurred by this success I developed in 1974 the model of pay-and-use community toilets in urban centres, which became very popular, first in Bihar, and then all over India.

Meanwhile, I had founded in 1970, on the suggestion of some well-wishers, an organization to take forward the sanitation and social work—the Sulabh Shauchalaya Sansthan—later renamed Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, which gradually expanded and stands today as one of the world’s top ten non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the biggest in India with over 50,000 volunteers. We gradually evolved a practical methodology of how an NGO could work as a catalytic agent between the government, local bodies, and the citizens or beneficiaries. We felt that a productive partnership between government and social organizations was required to address the thorny issues of sanitation and liberation of scavenging dalits. On their own, neither government nor NGOs could achieve much. By this constructive approach, Sulabh provided one of India’s first and most successful models of government-NGO partnerships—a precursor of sorts to today’s public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Many-sided struggle for the scavengers’ liberation

Alongside the toilet construction and sanitation work, we started schools in Patna, Delhi and other places to educate the Valmikis’ children, helping them to break the vicious cycle of scavenging–illiteracy–dependency. We also set up vocational centres to train the women and children in different skills which can open for them alternative economic opportunities. We followed this up with initiating several religious and cultural measures to integrate them in the social mainstream. Initiatives such as taking the “untouchables” to temples, the highest seat of sacredness; the upper-caste people visiting the untouchables’ homes and vice versa; the inter-caste meeting and commensality; and, a programme of social adaptation in which a high-status family adopts a Valmiki’s family in order to break the caste barrier and helps educate and empower the adopted family in every possible way.

In sync with this commitment—and in continuity of our many economic and cultural initiatives to empower the downtrodden—Sulabh has set up Nai Disha, a vocational centre in Alwar, Rajasthan, where dalit women (earlier engaged in manual cleaning of excreta) get stipend and are trained in tailoring, embroidery, beauty treatments, and in preparing eatables like pickles and papad. In 2008, Sulabh flew three dozens of such trainees to New York to participate in a fashion show held at the United Nations headquarters to mark the International Year of Sanitation. I accompanied them in their high journey, and saw in their eyes the glitter of a new life. Now I see their products including eatables like pickles, papad and noodles being purchased and relished by the upper-caste people who earlier shunned any contact with them. Our campaign to bring together different caste groups also ensured that the liberated dalits visit the homes of—and interact with—their former tormentors, and vice versa. As the dalits’ social and economic distance from the traditionally privileged castes gets reduced, the former untouchables feel they are on a par with the upper-caste people. This sense of self-respect has a genuine authenticity as it is getting wider social acceptance: the so-called upper-caste people have started shedding the caste bias and thus dismantling the dividing wall of high and low, touchable and untouchable.

On the other side, the toilet complexes that we have built all over India are mostly manned by the upper-caste people who earlier considered toilet and anything related to human waste as taboo. By bringing the upper-caste people in the sanitary work and taking out the untouchables from hateful work like cleaning excreta manually and providing them alternative respectable employment, Sulabh has challenged the rigid and discriminatory framework of caste. All this has contributed to slacken the casteist mindset and caste barriers, thus starting the process of eradicating all forms of social discriminations. Though the caste as an ethnic identity may survive, our persistent and multi-pronged endeavours—education, training, alternative employment, social upgradation and cultural integration—are breaking down the hierarchical basis of caste divides by uplifting the social status of downtrodden communities. Perhaps there is no better way to fight the menace of caste system and build a healthy and inclusive society.

Inclusive thinking and action for inclusive society

Our struggle for restoration of dignity and human rights to the scavenging dalits has thus taken the shape of a movement for social justice. Our initiative has broken a new ground in pushing radical ideas in a reformist mould which can get support from across the diverse society. Implicit in this approach is the thinking that we should be thankful for the values of tradition that enhances our humanity, and ashamed of its vulgarity that degrades and divides us. We recognize that changing entrenched mindset and prejudice is difficult but living in the past is a dangerous living. To be vibrant and creative, the individual and society need new ideas and new movements. Such open-mindedness enables us to embrace the virtuous, irrespective of its origin—ancient or modern, Eastern or Western. Sulabh thus keeps its doors and windows open while being firmly rooted to its soil. Many of our new philanthropic initiatives—as such as the welfare work for widows of Vrindavan and Banaras and financial support to students from poor background—are imbedded in such thinking.

Our movement thus not only protests against the injustice of the existing conditions, but also offers concrete constructive action to remedying the situation. Keeping our focus on problem and solution, we keep away from the theory and practice of caste-class conflict. But we recognize that political democracy is meaningless unless it also becomes a social democracy with progressive elimination of caste-class disparities. Taking the democratic road to justice, Sulabh strives for institutionalization of means for securing systemic changes; creation of new structures which, by their existence, would qualitatively affect the entire system; replacement of old structure with a new one which is more suitable to social transformation; change in the caste culture of inequality and denial of opportunity; and formation of a new social identity for the former untouchables which can help them gain their self-respect and dignity.

To conclude, the movement that Sulabh has been spearheading since the 1970s, started changing the people’s mindset and shifting the paradigm. We did this through a range of interconnected initiatives. Dissecting problems. Rejecting stereotypes. Contesting caste. Innovating technology. Raising consciousness. Connecting people. Building bridges. Bringing change. All this is rooted in our basic understanding that everything that matters in our life—economy, polity, sanitation, and so on—is embedded in our society. Only if society progresses can we progress in other dimensions. The creation of social capital is the most prized and required asset without which we cannot make real and sustainable development in any arena.

With these words, I express once again my gratitude to the Centre for Development of Corporate Citizenship for giving me this wonderful opportunity to share my story. And I thank all of you for keenly listening to me.


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