For Bindeshwar Pathak, Sulabh was not just a toilet but a quest to uplift humanity
D Jeevan Kumar / Updated 09 September 2023
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
–M K Gandhi
Bindeshwar Pathak (1943–2023) is known around the world for his remarkable contribution to the field of sanitation, significantly improving public health and human rights in India and other countries. His accomplishments span the fields of sanitation technology, social enterprise, and healthcare education, serving as a model for NGOs and public health initiatives around the world.
Describing himself as an “action-sociologist,” Pathak stood at the forefront of social enterprise for decades, combining business best practices and principled activism to advance the causes of better sanitation, societal transformation, and enhanced quality of life. In 1970, he established Sulabh International, an NGO that has been a driving force behind improved sanitation and social change in India. Today, with over 50,000 associate members, the organisation has expanded into Bhutan, Afghanistan, and South Africa. In collaboration with UN-HABITAT, Sulabh has trained engineers, architects, planners, and administrators from 14 African countries.
Since the inception of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement in 1970, Pathak has tirelessly worked to replace traditional unsanitary latrine practices in slums, villages, and densely populated urban areas with cost-effective and eco-friendly toilet systems. He also led a campaign to abolish the traditional practice of manual scavenging of human waste from bucket latrines in India. He championed the rights of former scavengers and their families, advocating for economic opportunity, decent quality of life, and social dignity.
Pathak invented, innovated, and developed eco-friendly two-pit, pour-flush compost toilet technology, popularly known as Sulabh Shauchalaya. This solution provides individual households with an alternative to traditional sewerage or septic tank-based systems of excreta disposal. This toilet technology has been recommended as a Global Best Practice by UN bodies and earned Sulabh the General Consultative Status of the Economic and Social Council of the UN .
After Mahatma Gandhi, Pathak is one of the few who made sanitation and the upliftment of untouchables a mission of their lives. His contribution to abolishing the inhuman practice of scavenging is unparalleled. He not only studied this social evil but also provided practical, low-cost toilet technology.
With the establishment of the Sulabh International Institute of Health and Hygiene (SIIHH), . Pathak led efforts to develop effective hygiene and health models for urban slums and rural villages. In collaboration with other organisations, SIIHH has created hygiene curricula for young schoolchildren and their teachers, provided sanitation and health training for volunteer instructors in slums, and opened centres providing basic healthcare for the urban poor at Sulabh community toilet complexes.
Born into an orthodox family in 1943 and raised in Bihar, Bindeshwar Pathak pursued higher education at Patna University, where he earned an MA in Sociology, an MA in English, a PhD in “Liberation of Scavengers through Low-Cost Sanitation” and a Doctorate of Literature in “Eradication of Scavenging and Environmental Sanitation in India: A Sociological Study”. He travelled throughout India, living with scavenger families as part of his doctoral research. awing on that experience, he resolved to take action to eradicate a dehumanising practice. With the establishment of Sulabh International in 1970,
he thus launched a unique movement that combines technical innovation with humanitarian principles.
Apart from low-cost sanitation, Pathak’s contributions are also widely known in the areas of bio-energy, bio-fertiliser, and liquid and solid waste management. He embodies the qualities of a social scientist, engineer, administrator, and institution-builder. What sets him apart is his ingenious application of these skills to empower marginalised communities and improve community health, hygiene, and the environment. Pathak also took up the cause of the so-called “Other Untouchables” of India—the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi. Sulabh actively supports these widows through its CSR initiatives
to restore their life of honour and dignity.
Pathak has received many awards, which include the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India; the International Saint Francis Prize for the Environment “Canticle of all Creatures” in Italy; the Stockholm Water Prize for the year 2009 by the Stockholm International Water Institute in Sweden; and the “Legend of Planet Award” by the Vice-President of the French Senate in Paris in 2013. He has authored several books and has frequently contributed to newspapers and magazines on topics related to health, sanitation, and caste-based discrimination.
The Stockholm Water Prize nominating committee in its citation aptly summarises his contributions: “The results of Dr Pathak’s endeavours constitute one of the most amazing examples of how one person can impact the well-being of millions.” Bindeshwar Pathak was a man of extraordinary simplicity and modesty who made sanitation his religion:
(The writer is Hon. Professor at Karnataka State Rural Development and Panchayat Raj University, Gadag.)