Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, a non-profit voluntary social organisation founded in 1970 by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, is dedicated to Gandhian ideology of emancipation of scavengers. Sulabh has been working for the removal of untouchability and social discrimination against human scavengers, a section of Indian society condemned to clean and carry human excreta manually. Sulabh is noted for achieving success in the field of cost-effective sanitation, liberation of scavengers, social transformation of society, prevention of environmental pollution and development of non-conventional sources of energy.

Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers

Scavengers, a class of people united in their suffocating misery, were traditionally ordained in Indian society to clean and carry human waste, even those whose excreta they carry on their heads hate scavengers! Reduced to the depths of degradation, as untouchables, and forced to lead a sub-human existence, they were the worst victims of a cruel social order.

It is a common sight to see scavengers, mostly women, moving with excreta on the head, stored in bamboo-baskets, or in leaking drums, with the muck trickling down over face and body. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak strategy for liberation of Balmikis through the Sulabh movement consists of a mixed package of technology, rehabilitation, with alternative employment and social reform.

The Sulabh approach to restore human dignity to Balmikis has five distinct stages:

a.   Liberation;

b.   Rehabilitation;

c.   Vocational training;

d.   Proper education of next generation; and,

e.   Social elevation

Eco-friendly Technology

Environmental friendly two-pit, pour-flush compost toilet known as Sulabh Shauchalaya that is socially acceptable, economically affordable, technologically appropriate and does not require scavengers to clean the pits and implemented in more than 1.2 million houses all over India that has helped liberate over a million scavengers. 

Sulabh Public Toilet Complexes

Construction and maintenance of public toilets at public places and in slums on ‘pay & use basis’ is a landmark of Sulabh in the field of sanitation. So far it has constructed and is or maintaining over 8000 such public toilets in India.

Provision of Sulabh public toilet complexes at public places and in slums on “pay and use” basis is an important activity of Sulabh in the field of community health and hygiene and environmental sanitation which has constructed public toilet complexes in different parts of the country, where maintenance is provided round the clock. These complexes are located at public places like bus stands, hospitals, markets etc. and in the slums. For the construction, operation and maintenance of these complexes, the organization plays the role of a catalyst and a partner between the official agencies and the users of the toilet complexes. When facility for bathing is also provided with the community toilets, and above all if they are kept clean, people have no hesitation in paying a nominal charge for the use. For washing hands soap powder is provided to users. Children indigent persons are exempted from such charge. The system of operation and maintenance of community toilets evolved by Sulabh has proved a boon for the local bodies in their endeavour to keep the towns clean and improve the environment. This is a unique example of partnership of local authorities, non-governmental organization, and the community.

Biogas from Public Toilets

Recycling and use of human excreta for biogas generation is an important way to get rid of health hazards from human excreta, besides promoting use of biogas for cooking, lighting and electricity generation. Biogas digesters when attached to public toilet complex recycles human waste into biogas. The biogas from public toilets has multiple benefits – improving sanitation, community health and hygiene, environment and providing dignity to women and girls. In addition to using biogas for different purposes. To overcome the problems, Dr. Pathak invented an efficient design of biogas plant linked with public toilets. Under the system only human excreta with flush water is allowed to flow into biogas plant for anaerobic digestion. For biogas generation no manual handling of excreta at any stage is required. Sulabh installed 200 biogas plants in the public toilets all over the country. Production of biogas from public toilets and recycling and reuse of effluent through simple and convenient method is the major breakthrough in the field of sanitation and community health.

The biogas produced is used for cooking, lighting mantle lamps, and electricity generation. Cooking is the most convenient use of biogas. Recently Sulabh has modified the genset which earlier required 20% diesel and 80% biogas. It does not require diesel and runs on 100% biogas. This has made electricity generation from biogas more sustainable.

Sulabh Effluent Treatment (SET) System

After a series of experiments a simple and convenient technology named Sulabh Effluent Treatment (SET) are invented to further treat effluent of biogas plant. The technology is based on sedimentation and filtration of effluent through sand, aeration tank and activated charcoal followed by exposure to ultraviolet rays. The treated effluent is colourless, odourless and pathogen free having Biochemical Oxygen Demand less than 10 miligram per litre and is safe for discharge into any water body without causing pollution. It can also be used for cleaning of floors of public toilets in water scarce areas.

Implementation of Public Toilet with Biogas Plants at Kabul, Afghanistan

Sulabh was assigned to implement a few projects on sanitation, in Afghanistan, in collaboration with the Municipality of Kabul, funded by the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. In close cooperation with the local government, Sulabh identified 5 sites for implementing public toilets linked with biogas plants and on-site device for treatment of human waste near markets or at other public places where sanitation facilities were absent. During construction stage, local people were involved. Design of public toilet was finalized taking into consideration local socio-cultural aspects and easy maintenance. For the operation and maintenance of toilet complexes and biogas plants, adequate training was provided to local persons, selected by the local government. All these toilet complexes are run on ‘pay and use’ basis. Initially Sulabh maintained these complexes, and thereafter handed them over to the local body for operation and maintenance. However, it has helped improving the sanitation scenario providing employment opportunity to the local people.

Human waste from public toilets at all the five sites is being used for generation of biogas, which is used for cooking, lighting, electricity generation and warming oneself. Effluent of biogas plant is treated on-site, rendering it fit for discharge in a water body. It was observed that during December, 2007 when atmospheric temperature in Kabul dipped to minus 30°C, the biogas production continued and local people used it for heating, lighting etc.

Sulabh Technology Reduces Green House Gas Effect

In addition to conserving and reusing water the system has additional inbuilt advantage of reducing green house gas effect arising out of carbon dioxide and methane production due to degradation of human waste. Due to design of leach pit of Sulabh toilet in households, the carbon dioxide produced is diffused in the soil through honey combs and does not escape in the atmosphere. Because of anaerobic digestion of human waste during biogas production, methane is produced that is used for different purposes viz. Methane as such is not left to escape in the atmosphere. Thus, both these technologies help in reducing greenhouse effect and thus improving the environment.

Financial Viability of the Projects

Since human excreta were considered as the most hated object in the society, it was difficult for anyone to conceive financial viability of a project related to its disposal. However, Sulabh has made it financially viable. The cost of construction is met by the local body. The maintenance of toilet blocks and day-to-day expenses is met from the users’ charge. Sulabh does not depend on external agencies for finances and meets all the financial obligations through raising internal resources. All the toilet complexes are not self-sustaining particularly those located in slums and less developed areas. The maintenance of such toilet complexes is cross-subsidized from the income generated from toilet complexes in busy and developed areas.

Elimination of social stigma and psychological taboo: Earlier there was a social stigma and psychological taboo attached to handling of human excreta. It could also be due to the fact that only people of lowest economic and social strata were supposed to be associated with this job. Due to the efforts of Sulabh, and financial viability, people from higher social status now compete to take up sanitation projects without psychological reservations.

Altogether there are 60,000 volunteers working with Sulabh that include technocrats, managers, scientists, engineers, social scientists, doctors, architects, planners and other non-revenue staff. Sulabh takes 30 years maintenance guarantee for the toilet complexes constructed by it.

The task of total sanitation coverage in any country can be fulfilled only through close co-operation between local government and the community or local NGOs involved with such work. Neither Government nor NGOs/CBOs can fulfill the task alone as the problem requires both technical as well as social aspects to be tackled. Therefore, it needs a holistic effort to overcome the problem. The strategy developed by Sulabh can easily be replicated in other developing countries to improve the sanitation status and quality of life.

Sulabh International in collaboration with UN-HABITAT, Nairobi has trained professionals from 14 African countries for their capacity development towards achieving the MDG for sustainable development in water and sanitation. The Sulabh technologies have received worldwide recognition. Sulabh has recently signed a MoU with Ethiopia to provide its expertise to improve sanitation, health and hygiene. It has trained more than 50,000 people to work in the construction and maintenance of community toilets in India.