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The Core Essential to Leadership:

Right Thinking and Necessary Action


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

I am enormously grateful to Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), one of India’s most illustrious institutions for education in commerce and economics, and all the prominent people associated with this event for giving me the opportunity to speak about leadership. Such recognition by a centre of excellence like SRCC is a great honour, and I am humbled and elated in equal measure by this gracious invitation and appreciation.

The discerning and distinguishedpeople gathered here know as well as I do that speaking on leadership is both easy and extremely difficult. As leadership is essential to society for a variety of reasons, it has been one of the most debated subjects in human history. However, despite almost three millennia of hard thinking and over a century of academic research into leadership, there is no consensus as to its core meaning, let alone it can be taught or its effects measured and predicted. Although there are thousands of books and articles on the subject, the jury is still out on the true meaning and dimensions of authentic leadership, proving the point that more information does not necessarily enhance our understanding.

What is obvious, however, is the commonly recognised fact that leadership is something that cannot be taught. Indeed, leadership is difficult to be neatly formulated or articulated, and it can only be learnt step by step. Recognising that we all have diverse experiences and assumptions of leadership, I will neither try to define leadership nor take you to the contentious terrain of leadership literature but speak for myself. Gandhi-ji was fond of saying that his life was his message. I adore and follow Gandhi-ji and I completely abide by his maxim that the best way to evaluate a person is to evaluate the life he has led, not the words he has written or uttered. In other words, my leadership ability should not be judged by my utterances on this subject, but by the life I have led and the work and results that I have produced. Centred on this view, I will try here to recount some strands from my life and achievements that can give us some insight into leadership, which, I think, is basically the capacity to translate vision into reality. Implicit in this thinking is the idea of solving problems and unlocking people’s potential to become better. A leader thus has to be both—a dreamer as well as a doer.

With the vision that a society that cannot fix its basic problems like sanitation—with its enormous human and ecological cost—cannot seek answer to loftier questions, I founded the Sulabh movement and struggled to place sanitation and social reform at the heart of India’s modernizing–civilizing story. The movement that Sulabh has been leading since the 1970s started, though it is not often grasped, a new creative wave in India. We brought aturnaround in social and sanitation sectors (the glimpses of which you will see below) through pioneering a range of interconnected initiatives—dissecting problems and raising consciousness; rejecting stereotypes and innovating technology; contesting caste and connecting people; building bridges and bringing change.

But above all, all through my life I have struggled to evolve a system or synergy to get things done, believing that leadership is defined by actions, not words. This is really crucial because we have consensus on many social and economic goals as well as the ideal of environmental sanitation, but we often fail to translate these objectives into reality. Under my leadership Sulabh International has developed the art of taking care of many small things that make the big things possible.  I would like to illustrate this by recounting a recent event. Many of you may be aware that Sulabh recently won the India Today Safaigiri Award for the AssiGhat of Varanasi in the category of the Cleanest Ghat. The story hidden behind this award gives the clue to my leadership mantra. In my view, leadership is all about solving problems for which we must have a clear goal and the ability to fulfil the given task.

AssiGhat, as is well known, had for long been covered in silt and dirt, and the devout people visiting the Ghat had to face a lot of inconvenience. Launching the Clean Ganga Campaign, our Prime Minster saw the pathetic condition of the AssiGhat, and he himself picked up the spade last year and kicked off the drive to clean up and beautify the Ghat. The rest we did after the Varanasi administration requested us to fulfil this task. We gave our best, our volunteers worked hard and we spent nearly Rs. 70 lakh to accomplish this work. We set an example of cleanliness—AssiGhat is now cleaned up and replenished; thousands of devotees and tourists now throng the Ghat and stay there for hours, savouring the changed and pleasant surroundings.

This is yet another instance that shows my unparalleled credentials in sanitary work. (Yes, as some of you may be aware, my invention of Sulabh toilet technology has been recognized as one of the best global practices for safe disposal of human waste, and I am the innovator of the Sulabh model of pay-and-use public toilets in urban centres, besides having the world record for constructing over 1.3 million household toilets and more than 8000 public toilets.)But not many people know that I have done two kinds of cleanliness—environmental as well as social. The changed AssiGhat represents the first kind of cleanliness, while the liberation of human scavengers (who clean and dispose night-soil with their bare hands) signify what I have done for the social sanitation. For centuries their ancestors had been imprisoned in the odious work of cleaning human excreta. They lived a life of extreme deprivation and humiliation. It is not possible here to give the full account of how and why did I take up the mission to liberate and rehabilitate them, but the following accountwill variously and implicitly underscore the salient points of my vision and leadership qualities.

Scavengers’ liberation: Leading from the front

Way back in 1968, as a young man of 25 I joined the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee and there I invented the technology of Sulabh flush compost toilet (known popularly as SulabhShauchalaya). This simple invention proved to be momentous—a potential solution to the massive problem of open defecation (that was much worse at that time) as well as the liberating tool to free the suffering scavenging untouchables from the subhuman and health-hazardous occupation of cleaning night-soil manually. Gandhi-ji, as is well known, was so concerned about the plight of the untouchables that he wished that he should be reborn in a family of untouchables so that he could relieve them from the subhuman occupation. I decided to fulfil his dream when I was quite young—and since then this mission has became my splendid obsession.

Alongside freeing the scavengers from the subhuman work, I developed a holistic plan to restore their human rights and rehabilitate them in the social mainstream. First, I got the scavengers relieved from the work of cleaning excreta by getting the bucket toilets (cleaned by scavengers) converted into Sulabh flush toilets. The owners of the bucket toilets did not raise objections because they got the Sulabh flush toilets. Next, I set up centres to educate the illiterate scavengers, and we gave them vocational training in making eatables like papad, noodles, pickles and skilled them in market-oriented trades likes tailoring, embroidery, fashion-designing, beauty-care, etc. Vocational training enabled them to earn their livelihood, freeing them from economic problems.

Our next move was to attack the caste concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ that separates the twice-born from those who are not. We helped the scavengers to perform the rituals and ceremonies of the upper castes. Initially, there was resistance from the privileged castes who would not even allow their entry into temples. Here we may recall a memorable incident: after learning that the outcastes or untouchables were denied entry into the temple at Nathdwara, the then President Shri R. Venkataraman resolved (on 31 October 1988) to lead them to enter the temple. On knowing this, I decided to lead a group of outcastes to enter the Nathdwara temple. We were met with resistance. But instead of adopting a confrontationist approach, I took the path of persuasion and was able to lead the outcastes to enter the temple. When we returned to Delhi, the then Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi and President Shri R. Venkataraman congratulated us for the good work.

More recently, I took the lead to enable the ‘untouchables’ to enter the temple in Alwar. Initially there was resistance from the Brahmin families, but after our intervention they relented and allowed entry of the untouchables into the temple. We also helped the erstwhile untouchables to perform prayers and observe rituals of the privileged castes. We took them to Varanasi to take a dip in the sacred Ganga after which they offered prayers to Lord Shiva at the Vishwanath temple. After that 200 Brahmin families had meals with them. This had never happened before. Subsequently, we also took them to the holy shrine of Ajmer Sharif and the sacred Cathedral Church, New Delhi. They also visited the Gurudwara. Thus, the people of different faiths and castes accepted the former untouchables. We took them to the temple, mosque, church and gurudwara so that they can socially integrate with others, which is so important for the evolution of India as a nation.

Through these measures we succeeded in emancipating the scavengers as well as making two towns of Rajasthan—Alwar and Tonk—scavenging-free. The scavengers now freely mingle with the privileged-caste families, including those that had earlier employed them to clean and dispose nightsoil. Now they sit together for tea and breakfast. The scavenger women do the facials and beauty-care work for the upper-caste women. They are no longer discriminated against in the marketplace while shopping or buying fruits and vegetables. This shows a significant change in the people’s attitude. Alwar and Tonk are now free of untouchability. We have brought the untouchables into the social mainstream. We have fulfilled the dream of Gandhi, following his model of leadership.

Work for the Widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi

Another social work of ours is related to improve the living conditions of the widows of Vrindavan. On a writ petition filed by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) for ameliorating the lives of the Vrindavan widows, the Supreme Court had expressed concern at their plight and had requested the concerned authorities to enquire whether Sulabh would provide support to the Vrindavan widows who were living in pitiable and penurious conditions.

This prompted me to visit Vrindavan along with many Sulabh volunteers inAugust 2012. Shocked and moved by their plight, I instantly decided to provide a stipend of Rs.1,000 per month to each of 552 widows. Since then I have been visiting Vrindavan on a regular basis and have undertaken various measures to make life better for the widows. Later it became apparent to us that the monthly stipend of Rs.1000 was inadequate. Some of them still used to go to various temples to sing bhajans for five rupees a day for meeting their food and other expenses. I wanted to ensure that these widows living in the government-run shelters in Vrindavan do not go to bed hungry or eke out their living by begging. So I increased their monthly stipend to Rs. 2000 from February 2013.  This enabled them to have two meals in their own Ashrams, obviating the need to go out for singing and begging. This gave them a sense of belonging and has lifted their broken spirits.

Another aspect that required urgent attention was the medical and health needs of the widows, as most of them are very old. To ensure their proper medical care, Sulabhhhanded over five well-equipped ambulances, which are stationed at the five Ashrams for their exclusive use. Now, medical clinics with able and qualified doctors have been set up in these Ashrams where regular health checkups and medical help are given free of cost to the widows.

Moreover, to make them self-reliant, Sulabh also initiated vocational training centres for the able-bodied widows. These centres train them in tailoring, dress-making for Lord Krishna, making of incense sticks and flower garlands (for sale in the market) so that they can earn a living. We have provided them sewing machines. We have also taken steps to teach them Hindi, English and Bengali. I did all these things because I wanted the widows to have a sense of identity; they should not feel that they are an unwanted burden on the society.

Subsequently, I also adopted the Varanasi widows who are rather scattered, some living in the government homes, some in private accommodation and the rest in their own groups, unlike the Vrindavan widows, all of whom live in the Ashrams.I have identified 150 widows who are given financial help of Rs. 2000 per month.

Helping hand to the victims of disaster in Uttarakhand

Moved by the natural disaster that struck Uttarakhand in June 2013, which left many pilgrims and villagers ravaged and homeless, Sulabh extended a helping hand to the affected widowed women and others. We gave financial help of Rs. 2000 per month to the women and elderly members of family and Rs.1000 to every child, covering 154 devastated residents of six villages of Deoli-BrahmagramPanchayat. Later we decided to give Rs.1000 per month to 300 more families of these villages. We launched a vocational training programme for the women and widows in the villages and started a training centre for them. This centre has 12 computers and 25 sewing equipments for imparting training. The centre is training the affected women in candle making, sewing, making diya-baati, besides providing them basic education and making them computer literate.

Last but not the least, there are several instances when I have saved the lives of many colleagues and volunteers working with Sulabh. I would like to cite one example of an ‘untouchable’ scavenger woman from Bihar—Mrs. Shanti Devi, a resident of the Harijan Colony in North Mandiri, Patna. She was diagnosed as suffering from brain tumor and the doctors gave her just 10 per cent chance of survival. But we brought her in 1995 to New Delhi and got her operated for her ailment at the Batra Hospital.  We did not care for the high cost of treatment involved. Now we draw satisfaction from the fact that the woman has been fully cured and is still contributing her services to Sulabh, twenty years after her operation. There are many other and similar examples of saving lives of our colleagues and volunteers working with Sulabh.

Conclusive remarks

Based on my nuanced understanding of India’s cultural plurality, I have tried to adopt idealistic yet pragmatic approach to problems, and have succeeded in pushing radical ideas in a reformist mould, taking along all sections of society. Like Gandhi, whom I adore and follow, I am a sort of critical traditionalist—thankful for the values of tradition that enhances our humanity, and ashamed of its vulgarity that degrades and divides us. I think, 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 thinking makes me embrace the virtuous, irrespective of its origin—ancient or modern, Eastern or Western. In this sense, I am also a critical modernist who keeps his doors and windows open while being firmly rooted to his soil.


As far as possible, I desist from ideological grandstanding, and instead support everything that deepens our humanity. There is an old Indian maxim that in response to the demands of time and place what is proper may become improper, and what is improper may become proper, and this underpins my life philosophy and leadership approach. This enables me to give my best to the things I can do, and leave the things that are beyond me, to others.

With these words, I express once again my gratitude to SRCC for this wonderful opportunity to share my story and views about leadership. Thank you.


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