by Sutirtha Sahariah
“Ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for the country”, the famous John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address that inspired generations to see the importance of civic action and public service, was echoed by Bindeshwar Pathak for the last time as he addressed a group of school children on India’s Independence Day at the Sulabh International Campus in New Delhi. On a muggy morning, the national flag was unfurled by a woman who formerly worked as a manual scavenger — a community whose welfare and rehabilitation Pathak had dedicated his entire life through sanitation and human rights movement that he began in 1970. Whenever he led a public event, he made it a point to honour former manual scavengers. Minutes after his address, Pathak complained of chest pain. He was rushed to the hospital, where he breathed his last.
Pathak’s sudden departure from the world was shocking but also blessed: he died the way he loved to live — amongst people, amid celebrations at his office premises that he described as a place that “gave him happiness like no other.” Even at eighty, he devoted long hours at work. Sulabh’s sprawling Campus has a school that supports marginalised students and houses the world’s first museum of toilets, featured among Time Magazine’s world’s ten weirdest museums. Students, researchers, and tourists from around the world visit the Campus every day to learn the science and sociology behind sanitation.
A day before his death, Pathak flagged off a solo marathon for a 22-year-old adventure sports athlete, Sabita Mahato, who is now running a 570-kilometre stretch from Manila to Urmingla pass, the highest motorable road in the world. Mahato has had several other expeditions to her credit but struggled to raise funds for her latest mission. Hailing from a poor fish seller’s family, her passion for extreme sport was getting no support from her state government in Bihar. She met Pathak recently, who, after speaking with her, decided to fund her mission on the Himalayas. While flagging off the marathon, Pathak said, “I know the pain of initial struggle. If someone had not believed in me and supported me during my early days, Sulabh would not have become what it was. Likewise, I believe in Sabita’s dream and bless her abundantly. I know she will inspire many other girls; I hope that one day, when she becomes famous, she, in turn, will help others. He remarked, “In life, if you have not learnt to help others, you have learnt to pray yet.”
Countless people like Mahato have been beneficiaries of Pathak’s kindness and generosity. Helping people in need was central philosophy of his life and Sulabh Sanitation movement that he single-mindedly pursued. He said the practice of giving came from his mother, who inculcated in him early on the habit of service to others.
In 2020, Sulabh International celebrated its golden jubilee. The author documented Bindeshwar Pathak’s unprecedented pursuits of converting tens of thousands of buckets of toilets that had to be manually cleaned by women who came from the lowest stratum of caste hierarchy — the Dalits. They were treated as “untouchables” and almost condemned to live an inhuman life. Pathak was determined to do away with bucket toilets and replace them with a two-pit toilet system he developed. His system later found worldwide acceptance. In India alone, 1.5 million toilets were built by Sulabh International, the non-profit he founded. He has also conceptualised the idea of pay-and-use toilets way back in 1974. Today, Sulabh toilets are a lifeline for scores of urban dwellers like auto and taxi drivers who sleep in their vehicles, migrant workers, travellers, and those living in slums. The Economist stated that an estimated 20 million people use it every day.
Pathak developed a financially self-sustaining model when getting funding for development projects was challenging, and Western narratives and agencies dominated the post-colonial development sector. Growing up in Bihar during the early decades of India’s independence, Pathak had a first-hand understanding of the sanitation challenges and intricate issues of caste hierarchy and politics. He knew how the powerful systematically used caste dynamics and power to oppress the poor and those from lower-caste communities. More importantly, he understood the cultural affinities that sustained caste-based discrimination and promoted other harmful cultural practices.
Pathak’s approach to development challenges like sanitation was unique. He did not follow — and even rejected — top-down development models often preached and standardised by Western agencies. “There was no time for it in the 1970s. We needed practical solutions.”, he had remarked. Sulabh evolved organically, and experts joined in later. Its approach was bottom-up rather than top-down. “We learned from the community and adapted.”
Pathak himself cleaned dry latrines and experienced how it felt for excreta to drip down someone’s body as they carried it on their head for safe disposal outside the manual scavengers’ colonies. From his lived experience, he understood to make sanitation accessible to everyone, he needed out of the box ideas. So, he adopted interventions that people could culturally relate to. For example, he composed songs in local languages for awareness and advocacy. He led an army of local volunteers who went from door to door pounding dusty lanes in remotes villages of Bihar. The idea was to trigger a behaviour change amongst masses. Through his sanitation awareness campaigns he spoke about respecting the dignity of manual scavengers. He later aggressively used toilets as a tool for promoting social cohesion.
The revenue that Sulabh earned through public toilets was ploughed back into running other programmes, such as a rehabilitation programme for the community who worked as manual scavengers or the much later for the welfare of widows in Vrindavan and Varanasi who lived a life of penury and destitution. In 2020, Usha Chamar, who worked as a manual scavenger and was rehabilitated by Pathak and awarded the Padam Shri, one of the highest civilian awards bestowed by the government of India.
On the technology front, Pathak went on to develop an entire system of circular economy around sanitation. He developed Sulabh biogas technology — an innovation that converts faecal waste into a resource on-site by turning it into bioenergy and bio-fertiliser.
Commenting about his passion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his tribute to Bindeshwar Pathak, wrote, “We often hear about one mission in one life, and Pathak’s life and work was a great example of what it means to have one mission in life.” Pathak work will continue to inspire generations of Indians.