I amimmensely grateful to the President, Officers and Directors of the Rotary Club of Delhi Midtown, Rotary International District 3011, for giving me this opportunity to speak about our movement before such an enlightened audience. Since its inception, the Rotary Club, with its motto ‘Service Above Self’, has been a hub of renowned and public-spirited individuals. It has over the years made outstanding social contribution through undertaking various community service and health-related projects. I see it as a privilege to be invited as a Guest Speaker by one of the country’s premier service clubs, and I am thankful to the Club and the distinguished people associated with it for this honour.
As someone who has been working ceaselessly for the last 45 years in the social and sanitation sector through pioneering the Sulabh movement, the movement has become my life. 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, as this presentation will make clear. This also explains the generous use of the first person singular in my presentation for which I seek in advance your gracious lenience.
Before coming to Sulabh’s struggle, activities and accomplishments in the areas of environmental sanitation, human rights and social transformation, I would like first to share with you some fragments of my childhood memories which may help us better grasp the large-scale human deprivation and helplessness of the time, and which perhaps helped shape my life-long engagement to social and sanitation issues. I would like to draw your attention to some incidents from my early days, which consciously or subliminally impacted my future work as a sanitation campaigner and a social reformer.
I was born in the early 1940s in a well-off Brahmin family in a village in Vaishali district in the state of Bihar. I grew up in a sprawling home with a large compound—nine rooms, including a room for offering prayers, but no toilet. As a child, even though asleep or half-awake, I would often witness chaos every morning as all the women in the house had to complete ablutions before sunrise. Someone picking up a bucket, someone filling water, everyone in a hurry to go out to relieve herself before the daybreak. In case a woman fell sick she would have to relieve herself in a mitti ka bartan (a mud-straw bucket). The women often suffered from headaches because during the day they had to control the call of nature. This was the state of women in a prosperous family. Imagine the fate of the less fortunate ones! As a child, I saw all this. And of course I saw the ugly spectacle of male villagers defecating in the open even during the daytime—a common sight in those days.
My first memory of a toilet is a dry latrine used by the village zamindar. It smelt so bad we held our breath as we passed by it. It was cleaned and disposed manually by an untouchable woman who lived outside the village. As a six-year-old, I touched that untouchable woman—the child in me perhaps wanted to know “what will happen if I touch the untouchable!” My grandmother, who was a strict believer in the rules of purity and pollution, was horrified. She decided to purify her errant grandchild by forcing me to swallow cowdung mixed with cow’s urine, and making me bathe in the water from the river Ganga. I vividly remember this traumatic incident—a lump of cowdung and cow’s urine being thrust into 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 subconscious mind, but their troubling meaning gradually unfolded to me as I grew up and became conscious of the things around me. I noticed the extremely filthy and unhygienic conditions that surrounded our life. Even insanitary latrines were few and far between. Consider this: I studied in four different schools, none of which had a toilet. And almost everyone in my village would defecate in the open. The problem of open defection—which was the cause of many life-threatening abdominal and infectious diseases—was not the tragedy of my village alone. By and large this was the tragedy of India’s 700, 000 villages and thousands of small and big townships.
I noticed that general lack of basic sanitation facilities like toilets filled our surroundings with pathogens and made life insecure for most people, especially children who would easily get infected and suffered from dysentery and diarrhoea. The news of infants and children dying from the easily preventable diseases was not uncommon at that time. But the lot of women was the most pathetic, as they suffered the most from the lack of toilets. Unlike men, they could not go out during daytime to relieve themselves. And when they would step out in the shadow of darkness (before sunrise or after sunset), they would be exposed to the dangers posed by snakes, scorpions, or other noxious insects and reptiles. This problem still remains grim, especially in the rural areas, and now the women also face the brutality of rape from anti-social elements that take advantage of the cover of darkness to commit such heinous crime.
In other words, the lack of toilets has a deep gender dimension in a deeply patriarchal society like ours. And this understanding has greatly helped us in taking women’s special needs into account in our plan and promotion of sanitation.
Similarly, I became aware of the caste dimension of social and sanitation problems afflicting our society, as reflected in the incident of my touching the untouchable woman. In those days, there were lakhs of unhygienic pit latrines in rural and suburban areas being used by the relatively well-off people. Those latrines had to be manually cleaned and disposed by a particular sub-caste among the community of untouchables, for which they were despised and ostracized by the larger society. This problem of manual scavenging still persists in some pockets, despite the Constitutional mandate and social outcry against it. But this dehumanizing practice is on the way out of its existence, and our movement, as we shall see shortly, has played a leading role in this turnaround.
The point of narrating all this is that the early exposures to many kinds of human vulnerabilities and appalling lack of health protection gave me an insight into all the major dimensions of human security—human need of basic amenities, sanitation and physical health; human rights which are the basic rights of every member of society; and the human cost of unavailability of even simple health-friendly things on the one hand and of the unresolved social conflicts on the other. It also helped that I took up sociology as my main subject for my graduation course. The spirit of sociology intellectually equipped me with asking the right questions and seeking possible and pragmatic solutions. Above all, my life experiences enabled me to acquire the perspective that the personal problems are actually social problems, as the individual and society are deeply intertwined and interdependent. In retrospect, I think this insight also paved the way to better perceive the interconnectedness of things and people. When I started my social and sanitation work, I quickly came to realize that the best way to ensure public health, sanitation, human rights, women’s safety and other elements of human security is to adopt an integrated and holistic approach because human problems do not exist in isolation but in close proximity. One problem is difficult to be resolved unless other problems are also resolved.
How the battle began for the rights of dalits and women
In this backdrop, I started my social work (after doing my graduation in sociology from Patna University) as a volunteer of the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee in 1968–69. This Committee, as a mark of centenary tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, had formed a cell with the objective of freeing the Bhangis—the group of untouchables (called scavengers in English and now known as Valmikis among the dalits), as mentioned earlier, from their traditional occupation of cleaning and disposing human excreta and restoring their human rights and dignity. 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. I was utterly unprepared for such a challenge, but willy-nilly I accepted the assignment. At that time, it was a mad venture 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 his life.
The turning point came when 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 life, their toil, their agony—and identify with their pain—before making any attempt to liberate them. Our country was far more uncouth and casteist than it is now. Two heart-rending incidents from those three months opened my eyes to the extreme cruelties of caste. The first incident concerned a scavenging dalit 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. My eyes welled up to see the bride’s humiliation but at that time I was not in a position to help her. The second incident occurred soon after 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 scavengers’ 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 commit my life to the cause of scavenging dalits, disregarding the taunts and insults from the larger society, and the stiff opposition from my family. At this point, two tough questions 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 scavenging dalits freed and rehabilitated in other gainful occupation.
Technology for social change: Developing a global best practice
Traditionally no attention was paid to the occupational hazards of health associated with manual scavenging. This practice created not only large-scale environmental pollution and added to the burden of infectious diseases but also produced social discrimination, including the vile practice of untouchability. I realized that no amount of advocacy and sensitization would remove the manual scavenging unless it is backed by a viable technology which ensures that no manual handling is required for disposal of excreta. An appropriate and affordable technology would also be the solution to the rampant menace of open defecation and environmental pollution. I was not an engineer or a scientist and thus not qualified at all to invent an appropriate toilet system, but I was impassioned to end the injustice against the scavenging dalits. I applied my mind, searched intensely, and with the help of a WHO handbook on the subject, I invented 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). It proved to be the much-needed technological tool to solve to the problems of manual scavenging as well as open defecation.
After this breakthrough, we struggled long and hard for its large-scale application in the community. But once the appropriateness and cost-effectiveness of the Sulabh toilet became clear to the people, the government and municipalities too came around and decided to promote our toilet system. Spurred by this success, I developed the model of pay-and-use community toilets in urban centres, which became very popular, first in Bihar, and then across India. Gradually, the Sulabh household and public toilets came all over the country. It has been a long and arduous journey from one small town (Arrah) in one state (Bihar) to 1,100 towns in 29 states and 7 Union Territories. Today, there are 1.3 million household Sulabh toilets and 8,000 public toilets in India. More than 15 million people use these facilities. Now, Sulabh has crossed over into Afghanistan, South East Asia, Africa and Latin America. Our concept and practice have received worldwide recognition and today many of the developing countries are replicating the model in their own country. It has been recognized by the UNDP as a global best practice, as a potential instrument for achieving Millennium Development Goals for providing sanitation and excreta disposal facilities to more than 2 billion people across the world who have no such facilities. Our technology and our achievements have been evaluated by the United Nations, on the basis of which Sulabh has been granted Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Moreover, we have also researched and developed a decentralized system of wastewater disposal that generates a renewable energy by way of biogas production and prevents water pollution. Sulabh has also made valuable contributions in the areas of biogas and bio-fertilizer.
Holistic approach and cultural sensitivity our key to success
The situation in which millions of people defecate in the open and a class of people dispose excreta with their bare hands made me not only grasp that sanitation is a matter of life and death, but also the fact that the safe disposal of human waste and environmental cleanliness are linked to some key social issues. As the social and sanitation issues are interlinked, the problem of sanitation cannot be solved unless certain social imperatives are met. Fostering social reform is essential for an effective solution to the massive sanitary problems—600 million people without toilets and its tragic health and environmental consequences—that India faces. Through this integrated approach and its resolute implementation in the form of launching a movement to liberate the scavenging dalits, developing the suitable toilet technology, and building thousands of household and public toilets all across the country, Sulabh strove to change the dismal situation in which millions of Indians were trapped.
As a movement that combined social reform with technological innovation, Sulabh during its four-decade old campaign has made a palpable difference in the lives of millions of Indians. With our efforts thousands of untouchables doing the subhuman work of disposing human waste manually have been liberated and rehabilitated in the social mainstream. Well over 200 towns have been made scavenging-free with our sensitization and action on the ground. For this, as mentioned earlier, we developed the safe and environment-friendly toilet technology to replace pit latrines, removing the need for manual cleaning of human waste, and improving hygiene and sanitation in both rural and urban areas.
Alongside the sanitary work, we started schools in Patna, Delhi and other places to educate the dalit children, helping them to break the vicious cycle of scavenging–illiteracy–dependency. We set up several vocational centres to provide the affected women and children with alternative economic opportunities. We followed this up with initiating several religious and cultural measures to integrate them in the social mainstream. We took initiative to enable the dalits to enter temples and other sacred shrines from which they had traditionally been forbidden. We took the upper-caste people to visit the untouchables’ homes and vice versa. Whenever possible, we organized the inter-caste meeting and commensality. Alongside all this, we a launched a unique programme of social adaptation in which a high-status family adopts a scavenger’s family in order to break the caste barrier and helps educate and empower the adopted family in every possible way.
In continuity of our innovative initiatives to empower the downtrodden—Sulabh has set up recently 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—the privileged-caste people, 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 social acceptance. The so-called upper-caste people have started shedding their caste bias and practices, thus demolishing 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 former 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 various 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 social discrimination and build a healthy and inclusive society.
To conclude, through its ideology, orientation and activities, Sulabh has created a critical awareness for sanitation and an attitudinal change in people towards health, hygiene and environmental cleanliness. Though the cruel practice of manual cleaning of excreta still lingers in some places, and the scale of environmental pollution remains dangerously high, as a large number of Indians still lack basic sanitation and toilets, Sulabh has shown the way to solve these problems. But our vision is not toilets but human rights, social renewal and human progress. We have our limitations but we try to reach out to every suffering person and community. This is reflected in our recent rehabilitation and healing work for the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi. Sulabh is perhaps the only organization in India which is working for the welfare of the abandoned widows, who are the most vulnerable and desolate segment of our society. In other words, our movement is committed to build an inclusive society. The toilets, biogas plants, and other sanitation work are mere means to achieve that dream.
I once again thank all of you for giving me this wonderful opportunity to be with you and for keenly listening to me. Thank you.
Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak*