Social Entrepreneur Solving India's Sanitation Crisis
A simple solution to a disgusting problem
"The toilet is a part of the history of human hygiene which is critical chapter in the growth of civilization."
[Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak]
Anyone who has seen the blockbuster film “Slumdog Millionaire” would remember one scene above all others. I am referring, of course, to the “potty scene” where the young Jamal is shown relieving himself in an open pit. The scene caused a lot of adverse reaction in India as unrepresentative of true India. But according to a joint study conducted by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, 665 million Indians, or nearly two-thirds of them defecate in the open. I am not sure if these 665 included people using indoor toilets without plumbing; if it did not, then the number of Indians defecating in an unhygienic manner is even greater.
I love traveling by train when I am in India and have many enchanting childhood memories of such travel. But one of the less enchanting memory is of seeing people relieving themselves in the open whenever the train passed some open areas in the mornings. Some of these people would stand up holding their pajamas or dhotis to protect their dignity at the sight of the approaching train; most would carry on without paying any attention to those seeing them perform one of their most private functions. I never thought of this as anything abnormal and it took a foreigner for me to realize how demeaning this scene was. That was when I read V.S. Naipaul’s “An Area of Darkness”. Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian origin, was aghast at seeing such scenes when traveling through India for the first time. I realized then that what I had taken as something natural was somewhat unique to India and Indians. Whereas people in other undeveloped countries may be forced into defecating in the open, they won’t accept it as something normal as we do.
Another thing unique about India is the way we treat those who take care of our excrement. During my childhood in Lyalpur as well as the first decade of my stay in Delhi, our house and, indeed, the street on which we lived did not have indoor plumbing. A woman came to manually scrape our excrement with a pick-up and transfer it to a larger basket -tassla- which she carried outside on her head. Like everyone else, I also avoided her touch as if touching her would somehow make me touch the feces that she just cleaned and carried. She was not allowed to touch our water taps, we would pour water in a bucket reserved for this purpose while she stepped a couple of steps away from us. It never occurred to me that there was something wrong in my behaviour: But it did so to a Brahmin kid growing up in a village in Bihar. Bindeshwar Pathak, a six year old boy, wondered what would happen if he touched such a person. When he did, his mother was hugely upset with the sacrilege he had committed and made him swallow cow dung and urine and bathe in the water of the holy Ganga to purify him from his “polluting” activity. He realized that "If they (scavengers) continue to clean human excreta, they will not be accepted into society."
People who clean and carry human human waste, which we euphemistically call night soil, have been known by various names. We used to call them bhangi or bhangan. In military cantonments, they began to be called jemadar or jemadarni for some obscure reason. Gandhi called them harijan or children of god. But it was the British who coined a term for them for their census purposes which has become a standard expression in Indian English. That term is Scavenger. The dictionary meaning of scavenger is “an animal or other organism that feeds on dead organic matter” or “a person who searches through and collects items from discarded material”. In India, however, the word generally means the person who manually cleans toilets.
Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the first Indian who recognized the indignity of the job of a scavenger. As anyone who has seen the film “Gandhi” would know, he started the practice of cleaning after himself when he was in South Africa; not only that, the male chauvinist in him forced his wife to do the same, bringing tears to her eyes. Later on, when he started his Sabarmati Ashram, he made it a rule that all inmates of the Ashram would clean their own toilet.
Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is a Gandhian. Gandhi lived among the “harijans” so that he could experience first hand the humiliating conditions under which they lived. Pathak did the same. He lived among scavengers for three years to be able to feel their pain. He realized that the only way to get rid of the unhygienic state of toilets and to improve the lot of the scavengers was to develop a low cost sanitary toilet which was affordable by ordinary households and, at the same time, eliminated the need for scavengers to carry human waste. He then founded a movement called “Sulabh International” and developed a simple, low-cost toilet which cost approximately Rs. 700 and could be installed anywhere, including villages without any plumbing. This toilet uses only 1.5 litre of water for flushing as against 10 litres by a conventional toilet. The toilet “system” consists of two pits: when the first one fills up, it is closed and the other one is used. The closed toilet dries up in two years when it is ready to be used as fertilizer and for conversion into biogas for heating, cooking, and generating electricity.
Sulabh international has succeeded in raising the percentage of rural population with access to a toilet from 27% to 59%. The movement has also installed 5500 public toilets in the cities and places of tourist attraction throughout the country. Anyone who has used public toilets in India knows how filthy and nauseating they are. Public toilets built and maintained by Sulabh charge a nominal amount for their use but they are much cleaner than other public toilets and a boon to visitors with a need to go. The system has since been exported to many developing countries of Asia and Africa. It has been recommended by the United Nations HABITAT and Centre for Human Settlements, as well as by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Sulabh International Social Service Organization has launched operations in Bhutan and Afghanistan. It has, together with UN-HABITAT, trained engineers, architects and others from 14 countries in Africa. It is planning to work in Ethiopia, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Madagascar, Dominican Republic, and Tajikistan.
The Sulabh system removes the need for scavenger; therefore, Pathak’s organization started training schools to prepare them for alternative jobs. These included a training school for women in Rajasthan to train them in tailoring, embroidery, food-processing and beauty treatments. Some of these women went to New York City to participate in a fashion show held at the U.N. headquarters to celebrate the International Year of Sanitation.
In recognition of his services for efficient water management, Dr. Pathak was awarded the 2009 Stockholm Water Prize. The award was created in 1990 to recognize achievements in water science, water management, water action or awareness building and carries a cash prize of $150,000. If India could produce another 100 Pathaks, it could really begin to shine.
Although the practice of manual scavenging became illegal in India in 1993, there are still 115,000 scavengers working in the country today.
Dost_Mittar, the author, is a Canadian of Indian origin. He is a retired policy analyst with the Canadian government living in Ottawa. He does consulting work, mostly with governments, if and when "I get an assignment without looking for it. My hobby is to get away from Canadian winters as much as possible".
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