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Monday, 28 August 2017 | Prashant Tewari

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is a great humanist and social reformer of contemporary India. To the weaker sections of society especially, his is the compassionate face of a paternal redeemer. He has the vision of a philosopher and the undying zeal of a missionary. He is an icon of sanitation and social reform who has made a difference in the lives of millions of people. Dr. Pathak will be remembered in history for his innovative strides in the field of sanitation as well as social reform. With his efforts erstwhile untouchables have been allowed by the society to intermingle with them and to live on par, dining with them and being allowed to offer prayers in the temples. He has created a new culture which embraces the poor and extols the dignity of labour. The Swachh Bharat campaign of the present government was adopted by Dr Pathak in 1968 wherein he has tirelessly worked for years to bring about realistic change and awareness for clean India concept. Padma Bhushan Dr Bindeshwar Pathak in conversation with Prashant Tewari Editor-in-Chief of Opinion Express narrates his life experience of this eventful journey.

Q: Clean India Green India campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is perhaps the most ambitious campaign launched in post Independent India. You are a salient warrior of clean India campaign, how do you foresee your journey since you started the work? 

Ans.  To end the practice of manual cleaning of human faeces by the untouchables and to stop defecation in the open, I started my work way back in 1968. In those days it was a cultural taboo to talk about toilets and untouchables; wherever I would go, people would avoid talking about these subjects. They would tell me to have tea first and then start a talk about toilets. I used to say, “It would take some time to make the tea and meanwhile we can start our conversation.” To this, they would reply, “When we would sip the tea after talking about toilet, don’t you think we will also get a taste of the excreta in the mouth? In other words, there was no awareness, let alone priority, in those days about clean India or toilets both in urban and rural India. In those days, no house had a toilet in rural areas and so people used to go outside for defecation. The women had to suffer the most. They had to go out for relieving themselves before sunrise or after sunset. In darkness they used to face sometimes snake or scorpion bite or get attacked by stray animals and humans. Girls did not go to schools because of lack of toilets. Children used to die because of diarrhoea, dysentery, etc. My own sister’s son died because of diarrhoea while being taken to a hospital. In urban areas, more than 85% houses had bucket toilets that had to be cleaned up by the untouchables. There was no public toilet at public places and if there was one that was so horribly dirty that nobody will go inside the toilet.

So I invented a technology and developed a methodology to end this practice and make India environmentally clean. In those days, people were more or less unaware about the importance of good sanitation. Although different Prime Ministers and ministers of those days would sometimes talk about the subject, but after Mahatma Gandhi the credit goes to Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi for giving Clean India Campaign a national importance and national priority. I feel that after the intervention by the present Prime Minister of India, my journey and my mission that started five decades ago is now being realized, and now the people, especially the girls and women, have become aware of the importance of toilets and sanitation.

Q: In a caste ridden hierarchy of Indian society, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak pioneered clean India campaign, how difficult was the decision to pursue this agenda as your career? 

When I started working for the untouchables, my task seemed to be formidable. My father was sad; the fellow Brahmins were against me; my father-in-law was so angry with me that he said, “I do not want to see your face. I want to marry my daughter to somebody else.” It was very difficult for me as I came from a Brahmin family. I had no money to pursue my career. I had to sell the ornaments of my wife and some pieces of land that I owned, I remained starved for many nights, slept on the platform because I had no money. I used to walk barefoot in the scorching heat. In a nutshell, my journey was very hard; it was very hard to pursue my career. But only a determined person can bring about a change and improve a bad situation.

It was also difficult to get the support from the Government to start this work. Altogether it was very difficult and challenging to pursue the career I had chosen for myself.

Q: Do you feel vindicated after getting laurels from various parts of the world? 

Yes, I feel so because in my lifetime the subject of sanitation has been recognized.

The toilet technology invented by me has been featured by the BBC Horizons as one of the five unique inventions of the world. In 1996 at Istanbul, the UN-Habitat declared this technology as a Global Urban Best Practice. The Sulabh technology also got the Dubai International Award for ‘Best Practices for Improving the Living Environment’ by the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements. In 2003 UNDP has also adopted Sulabh technology.

I also received the honour of Padma Bhushan from the Government of India. But what makes me really happy is that the subject of sanitation has been recognized throughout the world and the fact that the sanitation technologies that I have invented could help solve the problems of 2.4 billion people on the planet who have no access to toilets. I feel that my ideas and my work have been vindicated.

Q: First time in India, your work is supplemented by government via Swachh Bharat Mission wherein there is a huge spike in budgetary allocation by the government. There is a huge awareness campaign undertaken by Central government & various state governments to bring perceptional change in the outlook of citizens. You are happy with the progression made in this regard? 

I am happy with the development of the Swachh Bharat Mission. The only suggestion is that for building the toilets, apart from Rs. 12,000 as subsidy, there should be the provision of loans up to Rs. 50,000 so that the people can build good quality and enduring toilets of their choice. In these days it is simply not possible to build a good quality and durable toilet with Rs. 12,000.

Q:  What are the latest plans of Sulabh International keeping in view the huge gap in demand and supply exists in India for proper sanitation, clean water and garbage disposal? Your organisation is planning to sync activities with technology? 

We have a plan to train one person in every village (there are 6.46 lakh villages in India) to work as a motivator and change maker. These change makers will go house to house, motivate, educate, train people and get implemented the toilets in the house if the beneficiaries desire so and also follow-up for one year so that toilets could be properly functional. We are trying to reach out to different avenues for generating the amount needed for training the people.

In the water sector, we have started cleaning water in arsenic-affected areas in order to provide safe and potable water to the people so that they should be free from arsenic diseases. We have done this in the five villages of West Bengal and our water plants are functioning very well. We want to extend this technology in other parts of the country so that we can solve the water-related problems.

There are many other agencies who are working on the garbage disposal projects. Sulabh International is coordinating with government and non government agencies for clean India mission.

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