He wanted to be a lecturer. But did not qualify. His marks were poor. He did well in sociology, but did poorly in criminology, which pulled down his average. But that did not deter Bindeshwar Pathak; he started teaching in a school. Destiny had other designs, however. In the late sixties, he was drafted into a committee that was to design the celebrations for Mahatma Gandhi’s birth centenary in a little village in Bihar. He was told that since Gandhiji worked tirelessly to restore the human rights and dignity of scavengers, he should be part of a committee that would see what could be done in that area.

This was the turning point in young Bindeshwar’s life. For the first time, he got thinking about it and from then, there was no turning back. Today, he heads Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, which has set an example of how to organize public health and sanitation in India. It has a budget of 150 crore rupees. It has set up toilets catering to ten lakh families every day. Sulabh today has a presence in 3,500 cities, 500 districts. Sulabh has now been invited by Afghanistan to improve their sanitation and hygiene facilities as it goes about rebuilding the war ravaged country.

Bindeswar Pathak talks of the challenges ahead for India as 700 million people still do have toilet facilities. Excerpts from a freewheeling interview.

You have done some phenomenal work in setting up community toilets and cleaning up the Indian countryside.

Sanitation is India’s biggest problem. 700 million people have no toilets in their homes. In slums, there are no toilets. So a huge population has to use open areas to answer nature’s call. India today has nearly ten million bucket toilets that are manually cleaned by scavengers. We cannot let his continue. 700,000 children die every year due to diarohea and dehydration caused by poor hygiene. Many schools in rural India do not have toilets and this is one of the main reasons why girls dropout from school once they cross the primary level. Can we let this continue?

Gandhiji drew attention to the problem of sanitation, but we did not have the technology at that time to figure out how to go about building easy to build and maintain toilets in India. The British built the first sewerage system in India in 1870. After 130 years, out of 4,500 cities only 232 are sewer based. Only 20 per cent of the urban population has septic tank toilets.

What would you say is India’s challenge?

The challenge for India is huge. The sewers in Delhi, for instance, were designed for a population of three million. Delhi now has a population of 14 million. The challenge is to provide appropriate, affordable and culturally acceptable toilets. It sounds difficult, but it is possible.

We do not want the government to give any subsidy to build toilets. We just want them to tell banks not to refuse loans if poor people want to build toilets.
Sulabh has now come up with a compost flush toilet that has two pits. One can be used at a time. When one is full, the other can be used while the first one is quickly turned into fertilizer. It is built in such a way that it requires only two litres to flush it while a conventional toilet needs as much as ten litres. This is the best design for India. Instead of a septic tank, we have now come up with a biogas digester that will convert human waste to gas that can be used for cooking and also to produce electricity. The wastewater discharged from toilets contains nutrients like phosphorous and so if we pass this water through charcoal and ultra violet rays, it will be ideal for agriculture as there will be no coliform, no pathogens and no bacteria.

How do you see the public health crisis today in terms of lack of proper sanitation facilities?

What is required is the political will to do it. Social organizations cannot take up all the sanitation projects of India. If we need to have a clean country, another freedom struggle to bring in hygiene and public health will have to be launched.

Are you hopeful?

Yes, I am hopeful. But I wish the government would allow banks to lend loans to build toilets. Today, you can easily get loans from banks. But there are no loans for toilets! We do not want the government to give any subsidy to build toilets. We just want them to tell banks not to refuse loans if poor people want to build toilets.

But if this has to happen, it will take ten to fifteen years as the Indian bureaucracy takes time to understand the importance of such things. Sulabh is a NGO. But we have not taken a single rupee from the government. And we have put in place a million toilets.

How do you manage?

We are ready to build toilets for anyone. We charge a fee as service charge. This helps us generate money for future activities. But as we all know, the government has blacklisted a lot of NGO’s as they have misued money. But that is only because they were given the money before the project. We take money only after we have finished our work. This should be the model adopted.

There is a lot of talk today on sustainable development…

We have shown how to weave in sustainability. We have totally recycled human waste. Even the wastewater is used for farming. It is a simple process. All the Christian missionaries can do it. Any one doing any social work or working with communities can do it. We have not patented it. It can be easily replicated all over India with slight modifications depending on the material locally available.

Let us talk of the costs involved. There are many arguments of how expensive it is to have toilets in such an overpopulated country.

No, it is not costly. A toilet once made can continue for 80 years or so. It is worth spending. Think of the health costs if people use the outdoors as a toilet. If you have a biogas digester attached to the toilet, think of how much we would save in terms of fuel to cook and produce electricity.

We have designed toilets that can be made even with 500 rupees. We also have ones that can cost 20,000 rupees. It all depends on the area and the budget one can afford. If you have to build a public toilet, it may cost a million rupees. But then, once it is built, around 2,000 people everyday will use it for decades. If you calculate it in terms of health costs that you save with a clean environment, it costs nothing. We have built a public toilet in Shirdi and it is used by 30,000 people everyday. It has 150 toilets and bathrooms.

If you are ready to provide clean services, money is not a problem. Even in a slum if you set up a toilet, people are ready to pay for it. But our politicians are shouting about how toilets have to be free. So no one wants to build and maintain them.

You have shown the way in developing alternative energy sources using wastes. Why is it not really taking off?

We have designed toilets that are very affordable. We have shown how it can be recycled to make gas, electricity and manure. It is now for the government and community to take it up.

You started with rural areas in Bihar. Now, you have even moved into urban centers like Bombay and New Delhi.

We have covered 1100 towns in 26 states and three union territories catering to ten million people everyday. By the way, this is the figure of the number of people who use the Indian Railways daily. But we have a very long way to go.

Does it frighten you?

It does not frighten me. I am asking freedom fighters to join me. I need one in every district to move around and spread the importance of sanitation. . We will pay them a small sum for moving around. They fought for India’s freedom. Now, I want their support to again fight for India’s hygiene. Many of them have agreed to help. Sometime, this year, we will launch this movement. Every house in India must have a toilet. We must think of the dignity of our women.

You had gone to the World Summit on Sustainable Development and you had said that India has much to teach the rest of the developing world about inexpensive methods of sanitation…

Gandhiji went from house to house with a chakra. Sulabh wants to go from home to home with a toilet.
Sulabh Sanitation Centre
Mahavir Enclave
Palam-Dabri Marg
New Delhi 110045
Tel: 25032617 and 25032654.
Email: sulabh1@nde.vsnl.net.in
That is right. They asked me what the Summit would give India. I said we have not come here to take anything. Instead, we can give you sanitation techniques that are very inexpensive that can be set up in the developing world. All over the world, 2.4 billion do not have safe and hygienic toilets. The target is to atleast halve this figure by 2015. Many countries have shown interest in what we have to offer: Nepal, Afghanistan, Bolivia, Tanzania, Kenya, Argentina and some others.

After five decades of independence, we are still on the job of liberating scavengers…

That is because of problems with both central and sate governments. We can do away with it within five years. The government has money, but no vision.

But it is not easy to stop scavenging in India. They earn around Rs. 1,200 a month. If we have to stop them from carrying human waste, we have to find them alternate jobs. We have to rehabilitate them. We have to teach them new skills. While training them, we need to give them a stipend of at least the same figure that they used to earn. We need to ensure quality education for their children so that they do not get sucked into a job their parents do or did.

We need to have a goal of completely liberating scavengers and giving them a life of dignity. Unless politicians take interest, the bureaucracy will not move on it.

Could you paint a future scenario for India in the area of community hygiene?

It all depends on how the government acts. Politicians in power are unable to give directions. If politicians have no vision of a clean India, things will not move.

If India has to be cleansed and public health has to be improved, all that the government needs to do is to train young people to do it. They will create millions of jobs and these need not be government jobs. Sulabh started with me in 1973 in Ara municipality of Bhojpur district of Bihar. Today, I have 50,000 people working with me. Think of what the government of India can do. Even just scientifically treating waste water and growing fish in it can be a money spinner for millions. Gandhiji went from house to house with a chakra. Sulabh wants to go from home to home with a toilet.

I am optimistic. Children are my greatest hope. They are more conscious than adults. I find them looking for a wastepaper basket to throw garbage while adults like us do not care. The future is going to be much better.