Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, is widely recognized in India – and around the world – for dedicating his life to build a nationwide sanitation movement spanning over five decades. His contribution has made a critical difference in the lives of millions of severely disadvantaged poor who couldn’t afford toilets, and those who worked as manual scavengers and hence faced severe discrimination in the society owing to their low caste.
Dr. Pathak was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi; subsequently, his work and ethos have intrinsically contributed to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. In the last 50 years, he has worked tirelessly for the human rights of the manual scavengers who clean dry latrines, come from the lowest stratum of India’s caste-based system and are mostly women. His actions aimed at rehabilitating manual scavengers, resorting their dignity by providing alternative employment through skill development presents an inspiring example of promoting peace, tolerance and empowerment by a non-violent means.
Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak was born in a Brahmin family Rampur Baghel village of district Vaishali, Bihar. His mother was Yogmaya Devi and his father was Ramakant Pathak – a respected member of the community.
Pathak was close to his mother and was strongly influenced by her. Pathak says, ‘my mother always taught me to help others. She never turned anyone away who came for help. From her, I learned to give without expecting anything in return. It is said a man is not born for himself but for others.’ Pathak ingrained these values early on in life. Honesty and integrity have been his guiding principle throughout his life and career. Sulabh International, the prestigious organisation that he founded was built through enterprise and tenacity embedded on those values.
Both his parents were, however, firm in the belief that education alone would help the family get out of difficulty. Pathak’s grandfather was an astrologer. Pathak says, ‘with time and experience, I have learned to respect the teachings of my parents and maternal grandfather. They gave me a life of love and compassion beyond my dreams.’
Pathak spent all his childhood and adolescent years in the village where he completed his school education. He later moved to the state capital Patna and enrolled in B.N. College from there he graduated in sociology.
After completing his studies, he worked as a teacher for a while before joining the Gandhi Centenary Committee in Patna as a volunteer. This was, however, not his original plan. He wanted to study masters in criminology from Sagar University in Madhya Pradesh. While travelling to Sagar, he was advised by two gentlemen to join the Gandhi Centenary Committee – they said he would be paid well. Since money was the need of the hour, Pathak was convinced. However, when he approached the committee, he learnt that there was no job. Since he had missed the deadline for the admission at Sagar, he decided to stay on and work as a volunteer.
By the time Pathak completed his advance degrees including a doctorate, he was married and even had children. By that time Sulabh International, the organisation he founded was just taking off.
Whilst working for the Bihar Gandhi Centenary committee, Pathak was asked by the general secretary of the organisation, Saryu Prasad, to work for restoration of human rights and dignity of untouchables – he was dispatched to a town called Betiah. ‘I had my initiation with Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy while working for this organization. Gandhi strongly advocated cleanliness and was an ardent advocate for the promotion of rights and dignity of the harijans particularly manual scavengers. He longed for a solution that could replace dry latrines. I was extremely inspired by his cause which was furthered strengthened by own life experiences.‘
As a child, Pathak had often noticed his grandmother treating women who came to clean dry latrine with discrimination. They entered through back door as they were considered impure. And, once they left she she would sprinkle Ganga water on the ground thinking it would purify the house. Once Pathak touched an ‘untouchable’ woman out of curiosity in front of his grandmother. The consequences were severe: he was made to eat cow dung and urine, bathed in Ganga water in a wintry morning in order to cleanse and purify him. This was the level of superstition and discrimination that prevailed in rural India against untouchables.
His childhood memories came alive when he was in a town called Betiah in Bihar. Here, he saw the magnitude of the problems first hand: the community of manual scavengers – also known as untouchables – were brutally treated and almost condemned to live an inhuman life. One incident, in particular, left a lasting impression:
Pathak says, ‘One day, whilst working there I witnessed a harrowing incident. I saw a bull attacking a boy in a redshirt. When people rushed to save him, somebody yelled that he was untouchable. The crowd instantly abandoned him and left him to die.’ Pathak adds, ‘this tragic and unjust incident had shaken my conscience to the core. That day, I took a vow to fulfil the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi, which is to fight for the rights of untouchables but also to champion the cause of human dignity and equality in my country and around the world. This became my mission.‘
In 1968, troubled by pathetic conditions of the untouchables, and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy and teachings, Pathak came up with a technology that could replace dry latrines. He hoped that this technology would eventually bring an end to the problem of cleaning bucket toilets by the community of untouchables in India.
‘My idea was not just to provide a solution but to liberate the society that remained imprisoned in the formulaic traditions. I was determined to restore the dignity of manual scavengers that they were deprived of,’ says Pathak. He adds, ‘for these women, their freedom, voice and basic human rights were forfeited the moment they were born as they were perceived to belong to the lowest stratum of India’s caste-based society. By virtue of their birth, they worked as manual scavengers, cleaned dry latrines and faced severe social discrimination.’
I took a resolution to free them (manual scavengers) from the shackles of modern-day slavery and dedicated my life for this cause. I invented a sustainable technology known as a two-pit pour-flush toilet, which could replace the bucket toilets that need manual scavengers for cleaning it and eventually bring an end to this inhumane practice.
Dr. Pathak thus started the sanitation movement to liberate the manual scavengers.
The sheer saga of perseverance and patience
Pathak was convinced that to liberate manual scavengers of their inhuman occupation every household had to have a proper toilet. In those days in Indian villages, most households simply didn’t have a toilet. Households that had a toilet were dry latrines which had to be manually cleaned by the “untouchables.”
Open defecation was a common phenomenon. Women were the worst sufferers. They had to go out for defecation in the cover of the dark – early morning or after sunset – and hence ran a very high risk of being exposed to crime, snake bites and even animal attacks. Lack of toilets exposed children to diarrhoeal diseases and scores died before attaining the age of five. The concept of public toilets was non-existent.
Despite these huge social challenges, Pathak’s project was initially a non-starter and got entangled in perennial bureaucratic processes. Pathak was undeterred.
‘I was in need of funds, I sold a piece of land in my village and my wife’s ornaments and even borrowed money from friends to run the organization. This period of my life was very difficult’, Pathak recalls.
‘At times I even contemplated suicide. Since I had no money, I slept on railway platforms and often skipped meals. For long, there was no sight of any work. I was going through a miserable phase and was on the verge of a breakdown.’
But during this phase of the struggle, Pathak received an important piece of advice: in 1971, one civil servant who had reviewed Pathak’s file pending with the government for approval of funds was impressed by his noble cause and the massive impact that it was likely to create in resolving India’s sanitation problems. He advised that instead of asking for grants, Sulabh should take money for implementing projects and, from the savings run the organisation. This way the organisation would be sustainable and that way it would be more likely to awarded government contracts.
In 1973, Pathak persuaded a member of Bihar Legislative Assembly (MLA) to write a letter to the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, about the situation and liberation of scavengers, requesting her to pay personal attention to the problem. Within a fortnight he received a reply from Mrs Gandhi which stated that she was writing to the chief minister to give his personal attention to this matter.
Although the government took note of Mrs Gandhi’s letter and started to act upon it, the issue again got lost in the cobweb and red tape of bureaucracy. Thus the problem remained unsolved.
However, for Pathak, the moment of reckoning came in 1973, when an officer of Arrah municipality – a small town in Bihar – gave Pathak 500 rupees to construct two toilets for demonstration in its premises. The toilets impressed the authorities who sanctioned a project for its wider implementation. Pathak toiled hard going from door-to-door to motivate and educate the beneficiaries to get their bucket latrines converted into Sulabh toilets. The project was a runaway success. Pathak was invited to replicate the project in Buxar – and within a year Sulabh started working in the state capital, Patna.
In 1974, the Bihar Government sent a circular to all the local bodies to take the help of Sulabh in the conversion of bucket toilets into Sulabh two-pit pour-flush toilets designed by Pathak with a view to relieving the scavengers from the sub-human occupation of cleaning human excreta manually and carrying it as head load. The programme was then rolled throughout the state of Bihar. In the same year, Pathak introduced the system of maintenance of public toilets on a pay-and-use basis. At that time, it was a new concept in India but very soon it became popular all over the country. By 1980, 25000 people were using Sulabh public facilities in Patna alone. Such was the success of the programme that it soon received the attention of national and international press.
The New York Times, in a piece in 1980 hailed Dr. Pathak’s mission and described him as an “articulate advocate of the role of voluntary organisations in development.” The paper further added, “the major reason for success has been Pathak’s sociological and psychological genius – he knows how to translate ideas into action and get people to act.” The Washington Post in 1985 defined Pathak’s mission as “formidable”.
Raising the voice for the human rights of manual scavengers
The Sulabh Sanitation Movement was not just about sanitation but it was about human rights framing to sanitation. Pathak was determined to change the discriminatory social structures that prohibited manual scavengers from entering temples. In 1988, Pathak led a group of manual scavengers to the Nathdwara temples along with a group of Brahmins to perform rites and rituals. Initially, there was resistance from the people and they denied them entry into the temples. Instead of taking a confrontationist attitude Pathak took the path of persuasion and successfully convinced the priests to let them in. It was a historic step. This unprecedented step was widely hailed. Pathak and the group were given an audience by the then President Venkataraman, Vice-President, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma and Prime Minister.
The then Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi commented,
“unless these things are achieved India cannot be said to be
going on the road to development.”
In 1991, Dr. Pathak was awarded the Padma Bhushan for his monumental work for liberating and rehabilitating manual scavengers and also for preventing environmental pollution by providing pour-flush toilet technology which served as an alternative to dry latrines.
Shortly after that in 1992, Pathak was bestowed with The International Saint Francis Prize for the Environment – Canticle of All Creatures by Pope John Paul II. The jury in a statement that Pathak was unanimously chosen for his “comprehensive and interdependent nature of Pathak’s environmental and social commitment to the human responsibility of the earth.”
Over the years, Pathak’s actions have had a large implication in altering the process of inheriting an inhuman occupation based on caste. Through his leadership and vision, he provided support and inspiration to the marginalized manual scavengers and put them on the path of social mobility, especially in the two towns of Alwar and Tonk. He rehabilitated former manual scavengers and trained them as beauticians or in food processing, sewing or embroidery. They have also taken courses in personality development. These factors largely contributed to their economic empowerment – making them self-reliant and helped them live with dignity in society. Further, Pathak set up a school and a vocational training centre in New Delhi that offers modern education to former manual scavengers and their children. His sanitation movement is largely helping change the mindset of the society towards health, equality and dignity and the rights of women and girls.
Restoring the dignity of the widows
In 2012, Dr. Pathak undertook a great philanthropic mission at the behest of the Supreme Court of India. The court recorded that the government and its agencies were not doing enough to reduce the suffering of the widows of Vrindavan, after the National Legal Services Authority charity filed a public interest litigation petition to improve living conditions for the widows. The charity told the court that the conditions in the government shelters of Vrindavan were so bad that when a widow died, her body was chopped into pieces and disposed of, as there was no money to pay for the funeral rites. The court then gave Sulabh International the task of providing better services and care for the women.
Dr. Pathak immediately moved to help them. ‘When I first moved to Vrindavan [in 2012] to get firsthand experience of the condition of the widows, I was horrified to learn about their heart-wrenching plight,’ says Bindeshwar Pathak. ‘It was inhumane and was a blot on our culture and civilization.’
Pathak started by giving a monthly stipend of 2,000 rupees ($30) to each of the Vrindavan widows. ‘Money offers the widows much-needed security and by paying it to them directly rather than giving it to the officials who run the shelters, we guarantee they have control over the money and they can spend it in the manner they want,‘ he says. The charity also provides ambulances, free weekly health checkups and training to teach the women new skills including reading and writing, embroidery and candle making.
Since 2013, Pathak has also been leading the widows in an annual celebration of the Indian festival of colour, Holi, in defiance of old customs that even today bar most widows in India from remarrying, celebrating festivals or wearing coloured attire. His act of rebellion sparked a nationwide debate about doing away with rigid traditions that deprive widows of the opportunities that other women in India enjoy.
‘ The neglect of widows living in Vrindavan is a problem specific to some families and some communities,’ says Pathak, who is also campaigning for a government law for the protection, welfare and maintenance of widows. ‘It is the question of moral deprivation and greed of some families. But times are changing. We must teach the new generation to look after its elders.’
Be the change that you want to see
Pathak championed the need for toilets in schools. Today, in many parts of India, the attendance of girl students in schools have remarkably improved due to toilets but more needs to be done. Sulabh International, under his leadership, has been playing an instrumental role in fulfilling the dream of prime minister Narendra Modi to make India a clean country. Recognising its efforts Sulabh was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize for implementing the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign).
Pathak’s humanistic actions have changed the lives of thousands of men, women and children in India, who are able to live a life of dignity. Pathak says, ‘God helps people to help others. Change in society is possible if we ourselves become the agent of change. We need the collective action of everyone to reform the unjust practices of our society.’
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, “I am the son of the son of Mahatma Gandhi but Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is the son of his soul. If we were to go to meet M.K. Gandhi, he would first greet Dr.Pathak for the noble work that he is doing and then meet me.”