Bindeshwar Pathak, ‘Toilet Man’
Sulabh Shauchalaya is now synonymous with community toilets in India. And Bindeshwar Pathak, who passed away recently, took one to every nook and corner of the country
Aug 20, 2023 10:39 AM (IST)
I HAD heard of Sulabh Shauchalayas before I got to know of Bindeshwar Pathak. These toilets were already very popular in India in the 1970s and ’80s. It was much later that I got to know about the man from Bihar who was behind the novel concept. I have ever since been an admirer of Bindeshwarji and his mission.
In the early 1990s, an article chronicling our work had appeared in a newspaper in Karnataka. It was titled ‘India’s shame: Manual scavenging still continues in Independent India’. I went to the market to get a copy for myself but found that there was none. All 200 to 300 copies with the vendor had been bought by the Sulabh staffers. I wondered why they would be interested in our news. It is then that I came to know that the organisation was also working on sanitation.
I was keen on meeting Bindeshwarji and once when I happened to be in Patna, I went to the Sulabh office. However, I was told that he lived in Delhi. I could only meet him several years later at a Unicef programme. There, everybody was speaking very highly of Bindeshwarji and he was meeting everybody with a smile, exuding genuine warmth. I introduced myself and spoke about my work in the field of manual scavenging and sanitation. He told me that we must sit and talk. And talk we did, so many times over the years. We also invited him to our ‘Action 2010’ meeting which was attended by our founder SR Sankaran.
He contributed a lot towards sanitisation in the country and for the welfare of the marginalised. Most importantly, he made the facility of toilets available to the people in India and so rapidly at that — something where the governments have completely failed. The need to answer nature’s call and to bathe is a necessity and he extended dignity to those who couldn’t afford constructing toilets.
Sulabh is now synonymous with community toilets. We don’t ask around where is a public toilet, we ask for a Sulabh Shauchalaya. And he took it to every nook and corner of the country. Whether a small town of Punjab, Haryana or Bihar, wherever there is a bus stand, there is a Sulabh Shauchalaya. That kind of branding of an organisation is unheard of. He took the issue of sanitation to many national and international forums. His contribution to making the country clean is remarkable.
His work was very humanistic. By meeting manual scavengers and talking to them, he started bridging the gap. These things mattered. He also began carrying human waste on his head. He once showed me a photo of his carrying a load. I told him that he didn’t have to do that, but ensure that nobody did that. He said he wanted to feel the pain of those doing manual scavenging. That was his way of trying to understand.
We did have some ideological differences but despite those, he was always very friendly. There was a certain magnanimity in his personality, this large-heartedness.
His work brought him many honours like the Padma Bhushan, but that never affected him. He remained down to earth. He was not at all aggressive and worked with governments and missions silently. He was an able strategiser. And whether you agree upon certain things or not, what mattered at the end of the day is that he touched lives.
He had been in an advisory role at Sulabh for many years now and had developed a second line of leadership. With him gone, his work will continue and his legacy will live on.
What needs to be celebrated at this moment is his lifelong dedication and determination towards his mission and the way he focused on it. This is something that one has to learn from him. I am happy that he fulfilled his life mission. We must recognise his contribution to the country.
— The writer is national convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan
(As told to Sarika Sharma)