“There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia” - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., The Sirens of Titan.
There is a saying that there are angels on this earth living amongst us, and that every once in a while a person is touched by them. In my three decades on this earth, I am proud to say I have been touched by them. In 2011, there was a major conference organized by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) in Mumbai, India, to which I was invited but was unable to get a plane ticket to fly there from my home in Dar-es-Salaam. The then Indian High Commissioner to Tanzania, Mr. Kocheril Velayudhan Bhagirath, who I consider a great friend, noted my desire to attend that event and offered me a ticket, paying for it from his own pocket. Before I knew, I was on the flight to Mumbai. It was beyond my wildest imagination that the conference would be an eye opener to human suffering and one man’s dedication to mitigate that suffering. At the conference and for the first time in my life, I came across a bunch of people who were overwhelmingly passionate (hold your breath), about toilets, hand washing and hygiene! For the entire duration of that conference, we spoke about little else. WSSCC had brought together almost 500 sanitation and hygiene professionals, as well as communicators, educators, health professionals, architects, academics, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, leaders and professionals from other disciplines.
What Abraham Lincoln did for Blacks in America, Dr. Pathak has done for scavengers in India. Both are great redeemers Dr. Mulk Raj Anand Noted Writer & Novelist
There were participants from over 70 countries of which a third were from Africa, half from Asia and the remainder from Europe and the Americas. We learnt, shared, strategized and networked. Towards the end of the conference, I noticed a fit looking elderly man forever surrounded by a string of ladies clad in ocean blue saris. From the manner in which the ladies moved with him, I got the impression they were his disciples or followers (although what the man did was not immediately clear). I was intending to approach them when a lady from the group got up to make a presentation. I held back to listen to what she had to say. The presentation lasted about half an hour in pin drop silence and some of my questions were answered. I gathered that the gentleman in question was one Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the Sulabh Social Service Organization involved in sanitation work, and that sanitation is not only about hygiene and washing hands, but a human right. A brief conversation with the lady followed the completion of her presentation and I got more information. That Sulabh under Dr. Pathak, had designed an environmentally friendly and easily affordable “two pit” latrine that not only ended the practice of defecating in the open by many Indians, it also helped liberate hundreds of women labelled as “untouchables”, from the degrading occupation of clearing and collecting human waste with their bare hands. The story was deeply moving and when I returned to Tanzania, I told and retold the story to friends and family, to colleagues and then wrote about it in a national newspaper. When the article was published, I shared it with the WSSCC who in turn shared it with the people at Sulabh and from there started an unforgettable journey. In the last four years, I have begun to feel very much a part of the Sulabh family, and all thanks to Dr. Pathak, a very gracious human being who welcomed me into his home, familiarized me with the Sulabh family and introduced me to the “New Princesses of Alwar”, scavengers adopted by Sulabh who no longer clean human waste. He is truly an angel, one who gives freely and understands the true meaning of humanity.
WHO IS DR. BINDESHWAR PATHAK?
“Toilets should be just like sons and daughters, they should be given love and affection” Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak –
Born into an affluent Maithil Brahmin family in the Vaishali district of Bihar in 1943, Dr. Pathak had a fairly normal childhood except when the fortunes of his father, Dr. Ramakant Pathak, dipped in the year 1955 and left its mark on him. So when he completed his graduation in sociology from Patna University in 1964, Dr. Pathak entered the job market with the vague idea of wanting to become a professor and lead a “respectable life”.
Dr. Pathak joined the Bhangi Mukti (scavengers’ liberation) cell, a group set up to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s birth centenary by undertaking programmes that would promote a more “just and integrated society”. That objective inspired the young Pathak to live in an untouchables’ community for three months, to understand their degradation and realize their pain as his own. In those three months, he was also witness to a newly married woman forced by her in laws to clean bucket toilets. It was a painful reminder of his own experience when very young. Quite by accident, he came into contact with an untouchable woman. In an age old “purification” ritual, the young Pathak was made to swallow cow dung and drink cow urine by his grandmother. Both incidents had the effect of sensitizing him to the lives of the untouchable scavenger community and the ostracism they suffered from mainstream society.
He is truly an angel, one who gives freely and understands the true meaning of humanity
They had been disenfranchised in every way possible. His doctoral dissertation on scavenging explored the depths of the problem but he was also convinced that merely writing academic papers would not solve social ills. There was, he felt, a need for something more practical, something which would bring immediate benefit in the lives of the scavengers. He also saw a connection between their lives and the Indian habit of “open defecation” (people defecating in fields, along roads and highways, urinating on walls). It’s estimated that 600 million Indians (53% of population) are performing these rituals in full view of others. Studies have proved that “open defecation” has enormous implications for public hygiene, contributing to the overall squalor of our cities, towns and villages. It is particularly distressing for women in the villages, who have to do their ablutions early in the morning or under cover of darkness when they cannot be seen. Dr. Pathak’s native genius led him to work on a common solution to both problems. The answer, he reasoned, lay in developing an environmentally friendly, culturally acceptable and financially affordable toilet that would end the habit of “open defecation”. It would also end the practice of having to manually clear out the waste. With that framework in his head, Dr. Pathak set out to design a low cost toilet, the Sulabh Shauchalya, and proceeded to build in on a pan Indian scale. That same toilet is now recommended as a Global Best Practice. Even as those ideas bloomed, Dr. Pathak conceptualized a “vehicle” that would drive a nationwide toilet building programme. That vehicle was the Sulabh Social Service Organisation. Dr. Pathak was convinced that “the turning point was realizing that the success of an organization depends on its own resources. Self-reliance is important.” In the years that followed, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak combined theory with practice to transform societal approaches to sanitation. He has built an enduring infrastructure for public sanitation and attracted new skilled talent into the sanitation sector. Many see him as a great social reformer and humanist. There’s little doubt that for the weaker sections of society, Dr. Pathak is the compassionate, paternal redeemer with the vision of a philosopher and the undying zeal of the missionary. His work has brought change in the lives of millions of people. His efforts on behalf of society’s untouchables, to bring them into the mainstream so they live on equal terms with those of other castes and pray with them in the same temples, sets him apart. He has created a new culture which embraces the poor and extols the dignity of labour. Dr. Pathak’s contributions in the areas of bio-energy and bio-fertilizer, liquid and solid waste management, are also widely acknowledged. The more you get to know him, the greater the impression that he combines in himself the traits of a social scientist, engineer, administrator and of course institution-builder. What is remarkable is that he has ingeniously utilized all these skill sets to enrich and empower the depressed classes, improve community health, hygiene and environment. There can be no doubt that he is fulfilling the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.
One organization which works to improve the state of sanitation in the country is Sulabh, founded by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak in 1970 Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Former President of India
MEETING DR. PATHAK
Meeting Dr. Pathak for the first time in 2012 gave me goose bumps. I had done my homework, reading up extensively about him and what he represented. Picture a man who in four and a half decades has constructed over a million individual household toilets, built close to 8000 toilets in various schools and about the same number of public toilets. It just beggars the imagination. Dr. Pathak had invited me to visit the Sulabh complex in Delhi and the various other centres they ran. Clad in his usual white kurta and an orange waistcoat, Dr. Pathak was simplicity personified when he shook my hand. The usual pleasantries and small talk followed. I liked him immediately. I was given a grand tour of the complex that included the public school Sulabh ran, the toilet museum, the different pit latrines and the biogas plant fuelled by waste from the public toilets. Dr. Pathak told me about the Sulabh prayer and how he was inspired to write it. One restless night with sleep eluding him, he got up around 2 am, saw himself in the mirror and out of nowhere words flooded his mind. He grabbed a pen and paper and began composing.
“It took me until day break before I perfected the prayer which is sung and not recited,” he explained. “The prayer basically asks the world to live in peace and harmony as is done in Sulabh.” Of course the path to fulfillment was not smooth sailing. Dr. Pathak admitted that at one stage in his life he had contemplated suicide. “I have never experienced that kind of hardships like I did in the late 70s,” he recalled. “I had no job, no money and my debts amounted to close to $1000 (about Rs 60,000). Many a night I slept on an empty stomach. But as it has happened on many occasions, help came when I least expected it.” There was a time when his mother-inlaw came home and Pathak realized there was no food in the house. He dashed out to the local shopkeeper and bought on credit, rice, pulses, mustard oil and some spices. He even asked the shopkeeper to lend him Rs 10, and was bluntly refused. From there he went to the vegetable
seller and bought cauliflower, some onions, tomatoes and chilies again on credit. The day was saved. Dr. Pathak spoke freely, no matter how personal the questions I asked were. He is an exceptional story teller with a great sense of humour. He’s able to get his stories to come alive at the most unexpected of moments. He was also, as I soon realized, a poet who wrote with ease and sang too.I was fascinated by his “dress code” and learnt that that he had been wearing the dhoti since 1968, “upgrading” to kurta and pyjama in 1980. “The transition from the dhoti to the kurta and pyjama and later pants and shirts were largely due to the influence of my wife,” Dr. Pathak told me. He is in the habit of giving. But it is a cultivated weakness. Dr. Pathak explains “My mother always told me to try as much as possible to say yes more than no, simply because a no is usually followed by a why, and sometimes it isn’t always very easy to explain why you are refusing. This is just one of the weaknesses that I have.” One of my fondest memories of the 2010 Mumbai Sanitation Forum is a joke shared by Dr. Pathak. An English woman planning a trip to colonial India wrote a letter to the owner of a small guest house who was also doubling as the town’s schoolmaster. She was concerned as to whether the guest house contained a WC. The schoolmaster, not familiar with the nuances of English acronyms, asked the local priest if he knew the meaning of WC. Together they pondered possible meanings of the letters and concluded that the lady probably wanted to know if there was a wayside chapel near the guest house. That the letters WC (water closet) could mean a bathroom, never entered their minds, said Dr. Pathak. So the schoolmaster wrote back: ‘Dear Madam, I take great pleasure in informing you that the WC is located nine miles from the house. It is located in the middle of a grove of pine trees, surrounded by lovely grounds. As there are many people expected in the summer months, I suggest you arrive early. There is, however, plenty of standing room. This is an unfortunate situation especially if you are in the habit of
Sulabh has built 1.3 million pour flush toilets, has constructed and maintains 8,000 public toiletscum-baths, 200 human excreta based biogas plants and has liberated more than a million human scavengers
going regularly.’ ‘I would recommend that your ladyship plan to go on a Thursday, as there is an organ accompaniment. The acoustics are excellent and even the most delicate sounds can be heard everywhere. The newest addition is a bell which rings every time a person enters. I look forward to escorting you there myself, and seating you in a place where you can be seen by all. With deepest regards, The Schoolmaster.’ “No wonder,” said Dr. Pathak, amidst laughter, “the British woman never visited India.” But he believes that India has come a long way since those days in its efforts to meet the sanitation needs of a growing population of over 1.25 billion people. Sulabh has built one of the world’s biggest toiletcum-bath complexes located in the holy city of Shirdi (Nashik) in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, which boasts 120 WCs, 108 bathrooms or showers, 28 special toilets and 2,300 lockers for the convenience of pilgrims.
For his social reform movement, Dr. Pathak can be compared to Dayanand Saraswati and Raja Ram Mohan Roy Dr. Karan Singh Former Union Minister
THE GOODNESS OF TOILETS
< b> “Every cloud has a silver lining. We are glad that we have been able to liberate and rehabilitate the scavengers and restore their human rights and dignity. We have shown the way and been able to light a candle in the darkness. But there are still miles to go before this dehumanizing practice will be buried in the pages of history” – Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak
In the 40 odd years that Sulabh has been operating, they have built 1.3 million pour flush toilets, have constructed and maintain 8,000 public toilet-cum-baths, 200 human excreta based biogas plants and in the process have liberated more than a million human scavengers. No less than 640 towns are scavenging free. Sulabh has also trained 7,000 liberated scavengers in alternative trades and set up an English medium public school that provide 100 percent free education for the downtrodden. Sulabh has provided employment for more than 30 million people and has the support of 50,000 associate members. Dr. Pathak is the proud inventor of the twin pit latrine that has the advantage of using less water, which couldn’t be more convenient given widespread shortage. The design is simple, consisting of a pan with a steep slope of 25°-28° and a specially designed trap with 20 mm water seal requiring only one litre of water for flushing, thus helping conserve water. It is designed to be a stand alone (on-site sanitation), meaning it is not connected to the sewerage system. It has two pits when one pit fills; it is closed allowing the waste to decompose into manure. The other pit is then used and the cycle is repeated when this one also fills
The system is hygienic as it ensures the safe disposal of human excreta onsite. The Sulabh flush compost toilet is eco-friendly, technologically appropriate, culturally acceptable and affordable. The technology is entirely Indian and can be built using local materials and labour. “Unlike other inventions, this one isn’t patented,” Dr. Pathak told me. “Anyone anywhere is free to use our designs free of cost. This invention is for the good of humanity and not for profit.” Tanzania recently obtained funding from the Global Sanitation Fund to start a nationwide campaign. One of the primary objectives of the campaign is to upgrade hundreds of toilets to international standards. The twin pit latrine could be emulated in Tanzania given that there are no patent costs involved. The designs have different prices and one can pick and choose depending on the size of one’s pocket. Apart from the twin pit latrines, the Sulabh headquarters in Delhi boasts other technologies. When I visited in 2011, I was impressed with a wastewater purification technology using duckweed, a fast growing free floating aquatic plant. Sulabh has successfully developed demonstration projects on cost effective, duckweed-based waste water treatment in rural and urban areas that has the spinoff of allowing the breeding of fish for commercial purposes. Although duckweed grows in and around ponds and ditches, it remains under exploited since people are not aware of its potential in waste water treatment or its benefits. Duckweed helps reduce bio-chemical oxygen demand (BOD), suspended solids, bacterial and other pathogens in waste water. It is a complete feed for fish since it has high protein and vitamin A and C content. The Sulabh Effluent Treatment (SET) is another environment friendly system. Basically, it uses the biogas produced from human
excreta for cooking, lighting and electricity generation. The digested Bio-mass can be used as fertilizer as it contains a good percentage of nitrogen, potassium and phosphate. Every time I think of the lunches cooked and sumptuous teas brewed at Sulabh Headquarters in Delhi, I am reminded of the reaction of some visiting American students. When told that their lunch had been cooked on biogas, runner Usain Bolt would have feared competition given the speed with which some of the students sprinted to the bathrooms. But the point to note is that biogas is clean, odourless and has high heating properties. Sulabh, after extensive research, has developed a technology where effluent from the Bio-mass plants treated using “activated charcoal” and ultraviolet rays. The charcoal treatment renders it colourless, odourless and free from organic particles while the UV rays eliminate bacteria. I am aware that there are a lot of taboos about toilets and their mere mention elicits disgust. But after spending a fortnight with Dr. Pathak, I am convinced that the toilet should be the soul of the home, not the kitchen or the living room. The toilets pay back, economically and spiritually. It is also the best example of public private partnership!
Sulabh International has proved how effective small-scale solutions can be and how they can be extended all over India within a short time span HRH Willem-Alexander The Prince of Orange of the Netherlands (now a king)
WATER PURIFICATION / ARSENIC CONTAMINATION
In recent years, the problem of arsenic contamination of drinking water has drawn Dr. Pathak’s attention. More than 70 countries in 6 continents including India face the threat of Arsenic contamination of ground water. Globally, over 150 million people are now estimated to be potentially exposed to arsenic in drinking water at concentrations
Sulabh Drinking Water is now being retailed, a 20 litre container selling for Rs 10. This could be the cheapest water dispensing project in the world
above the WHO guideline value of 10 ppb, a number that is likely to grow as more areas are tested. Arsenic is widely found in the earth’s crust in both the organic and inorganic states. Organic arsenic is abundantly found in seafood but is not harmful because the human body eliminates it as waste. Inorganic arsenic, on the other hand, is harmful to health because it gets stored in the body. Elevated arsenic levels beyond permissible limits in drinking water, is a major cause of arsenic toxicity all over the world. Reports of such contamination occur in countries as widely apart as Taiwan and China, Chile, Argentina, Mexico to Hungary, USA and Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, Pakistan, Laos and many other countries. However, the largest numbers of people affected by arsenic contamination of ground water are those in India, China and Bangladesh. Drinking arsenic-rich water over a long period is unsafe, as arsenic is a documented carcinogen. The commonly reported symptoms of chronic Arsenic poisoning include hyperpigmentation, depigmentation and keratosis. Prolonged consumption might result in skin cancer, bladder cancer, even lung cancer. Arsenic crisis in India dates back to as early as 1976 when a preliminary survey on arsenic in dug wells and spring water was reported from the villages of Punjab, Patiala, Haryana, and in 1978 it was reported from some villages in Murshidabad, West Bengal. Officially however, the first recorded case of arsenic poisoning in West Bengal was detected in a few villages of South 24 Parganas district in 1983. The cause and source of arsenic contamination of ground water was finally ascertained to be derived from the intermediate aquifers lying 20-80 metre below ground level. Reason enough for Dr. Pathak to step in even though strictly speaking, this was a diversion from his core mission of sanitation. But the way Dr. Pathak saw it; arsenic poisoning threatened the lives of millions. West Bengal now hosts four water filtration plants installed by Sulabh where the problem of arsenic in water is being addressed. During my visit in 2015, I went to visit Sulabh water purification plant operated by a village co-operative society about 30 kilometers from Kolkata airport. I was impressed with the simplicity of the technology that was used and its impact on people in surrounding areas. Dr. Pathak said that are plants started off as pilot projects, not only for water purification technology but as models that the government could emulate and scale up. Like other Sulabh projects, it is employment oriented and local communities through mobilization can start up their own projects for cheap yet safe drinking water and for economic gain. The plant is run by no more than three people and comprises of a pump, chemical mixing/flocculation chamber, sedimentation tank, slow sandfilter, sand chamber where water is treated with ultraviolet rays and a water bottling unit. Apart from supplying water, Sulabh is also treating people suffering from arsenic poisoning at a health centre adjacent to the water plant. The caretaker of the health centre said that in the one year that the plant has been in operation, there has been considerable improvement in the health of people affected by arsenic poisoning. In this programme, Sulabh is collaborating with the French company 1001 Fontaines, The project is treating pond/river water which are grossly polluted and making them safe for drinking. They have managed to render pond and river water suitable for drinking. It is now being retailed, a 20 litres container selling for Rs. 10! This could be the cheapest water dispensing project in the world.
The centre of Sulabh is everything I imagined and much more. A centre of inspiration, liberation and human vitality Sir Richard Jolly Chairman, Collaboration Council for Drinking Water and Sanitation
THOSE WERE THE DAYS
“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” - Albert Einstein
There is a saying in parts of Africa that when a person invites you to their house, they consider you a friend but when they invite you to their ancestral home, then consider yourself part of their family. I was invited to Dr. Pathak’s home state Bihar and visited his ancestral home. What struck me about Bihar was the countryside, the fresh air, the sights and sounds from a moving train and of course the fresh vegetables that I could never have enough of. The Pathak family is well known and his grandfather was a famous astrologer who, I was given to understand, had predicted the death of his own sibling. He had also predicted financial hard times for his son, Dr. Pathak’s father. Both tragedies came to pass. The young Pathak grew up in a sprawling house with a large compound. There were nine rooms including a prayer room and another where flour for making flatbreads such as chapati, roti, naan and puri, was ground. Water for cooking was also drawn from this room. The house still stands although much of it is in ruin. I was intrigued by the well split into two by a wall. My host told me that it was to ensure that the menfolk used one part of it and womenfolk the other. Social mores dictated that the men should not see the women when they were drawing water to bathe. Bihar was and still is a very conservative state. Another point, I noticed there was no toilet in the compound.
Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi is the first person after Mahatama Gandhi who has taken up the cause of sanitation and toilets from the core of his heart and he has ignited the minds of the Indians - Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak
Dr. Pathak then told me every morning at 4:00 am, there was total chaos in the house as the women got up early to complete their personal ablutions before sunrise. “Even though I would be in bed, I was aware of all the activity. Somebody picked up a bucket; another was drawing water, while someone would push another to hurry up. In case a woman in the house fell sick, she would have to relieve herself in a straw basket or a pot lined with ash,” he recalled. I visited the four schools he had attended. In those days there were no toilets in the schools (and no female students either). As the tour progressed, I was fortunate to bump into one of his school mates who, when probed about school boy Pathak showing any special or unusual qualities, recalled that he was known for his kindness. But he added that other than that, he was like other children his age, climbing trees and playing pranks. He is also unusually modest. In our conversations, Dr. Pathak would never admits how successful he has been or the transformation he has affected in the lives of so many. All that he would say, especially in relation to the technologies he has developed or innovated, was, “You take a seed planted by someone else and water it. The fruits of that labour are just as sweet!” The point Dr. Pathak kept making: in life always keep your options open, as he did. He began life as a school teacher, and then joined the family business of ayurvedic medicines. He had plans for studying criminology but found himself among a body of people planning Mahatma Gandhi’s centenary celebrations, and ended up in sanitation work which became his life’s mission. “Our movement is to restore the human rights and dignity of untouchables (the lowest caste who manually clean toilets) and to bring them into the mainstream of society,” he kept reminding me. “The toilets, biogas plants, all these are means to achieve that dream.” Along the way he was helped by various people. Dr. Pathak calls them Messengers of God, people who gave him advice or directed him along the right path. In 1971, he recalls seeking a grant of Rs.70,000 from the government of which Rs. 50,000 was sanctioned. But that government changed and anxious about the status of his grant, Dr. Pathak made enquiries and was directed to meet one Mr. Rameshwar Nath, IAS, Secretary, the LocalSelf Government Department, Government of Bihar (now Urban Development Department). Pathak recalls that Nath’s first reaction when he walked into his office was to laugh. He had expected a 70-yearold man with a walking stick. Nath was positive and encouraging, telling him that his work would have dramatic impact but warned him that asking for grants wouldn’t get the desired results. Nath’s advice, which Dr. Pathak describes as a “life’s lesson”, was simple and straight forward, “Don’t ask for grants, charge money for doing your work.” It was the model Sulabh adopted and 40 years down the road, work has diversified, expanded and grown but without grants or donations. Oddly, the decision not to seek grants or donations came as a relief for Dr. Pathak. He had always had a problem approaching someone for help. He recounted an incident involving. Former Prime Minister of India Chandra Shekhar who once said to his personal assistant Raghupati at the time of his death that Dr. Pathak is so shy that he never asked for any favour which he could have done for him easily. “My shyness comes with one thing that over the years I have come to accept it as my biggest weakness,” said Dr. Pathak, “and that is asking
for a favour. I have known many powerful people in my lifetime but asking for a favour is something that has never been my nature.”
It was the model Sulabh adopted and 40 years down the road, work has diversified, expanded and grown but without grants or donations
This when running an NGO is not easy especially when you are not getting any work. Dr. Pathak had to sell the little property he owned in his village and even sold his wife’s jewellery. “I remember how girls whose parents could not afford a good enough dowry cried in their in-laws houses,” Dr. Pathak said. “People would taunt them that their father has sent them without a fridge or a car, your family has no status. When I got married, I could not afford to buy my wife the kind of jewellery which is generally given to the bride and even that I had to sell.” But he seized every opportunity that came his way. In 1974 the administrator of the Patna Municipal Corporation wanted a toilet block built on a large open plot of land opposite the Reserve Bank. Scores of people used to relieve themselves there, so the administrator thought it appropriate that a toilet should come up in its place. But he wanted it built in 24 hours flat! With Rs. 20,000 in hand, Pathak had his workmen dig a big pit to which he added sandalwood (to overcome the stench of urine). Twenty trucks unloaded red sand (badarpur) which was spread evenly over the rest of the area, and potted plants and ornamental bushes were added. When the administrator turned up the next morning bright and early, he was delighted. It did not matter that a toilet had not been built (frankly he must have known the 24 hour deadline was unrealistic and unfair) but that unsightly open toilet had been transformed.
Technology from Sulabh can help alleviate the water and sanitation problems in a big way if replicated in other countries. We can achieve the MDGs within the prescribed period with the help of a social organisation like Sulabh Margaret CatleyCarlson Global Water Partnership
Dr. Pathak always kept his eyes and ears open. Waiting in a restaurant for his order, he overheard two persons at an adjacent table talking about somebody in Indore, Madhya Pradesh who was running a biogas facility connected to his toilet. The idea appealed to Dr. Pathak but it took him one year to finally connect with this person. In 20 years he developed and successfully tested his own biogas facility and the filtration system for liquid waste rendered it suitable for use in the kitchen garden. As he put it, “While it is very important in life to keep your ears to the ground on issues that are of interest to you, it is equally important to be patient in pursuing your dream while fine tuning it to the level that suits you.” His advice to young entrepreneurs, “Create your own identity and leave your stamp on whatever you choose to take up. I told my son to take up work other than Sulabh and to be number one in a field of one, is a great feeling.” Clearly, Dr. Pathak has a passion for entrepreneurship but he combines it with the soul of a giver. I recall a commotion outside Dr. Pathak’s home in Patna and was surprised to see a long queue and at the head of the queue, none other than Dr. Pathak, holding a pillow stuffed with something. When I drew closer I realized he was dipping his hand into the pillowcase and handing out money to the poor, needy and downtrodden. Dr. Pathak must have slept even better that night.
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 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, he would first greet Dr. Pathak for the noble work that he is doing and then meet meProf. Rajmohan Gandhi Grandson of Mahatma Gandhi
MEMORIES OF THE KUMBH MELA
For someone born a Muslim, who attended schools that were predominantly Christian (and enjoyed being in the choir), I was excited by the opportunity to visit India to experience the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2013. The Kumbh Mela (fair) is a mass Hindu pilgrimage which takes place in four holy cities, holy because according to legend, drops of the nectar churned by the gods from the seas, fell here. So pilgrims in their thousands turn up for a dip in the holy Ganges in Haridwar, at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna in Prayag near Allahabad (where the mythical Saraswati was
known to run), in the Godavari river in Nasik and the Shipra in Ujjain. Each city’s turn to host the pilgrimage happens by rotation every third year. Thus the Kumbh is held at each of the locations every 12th year. The Ardh or half Kumbh Mela is held at Haridwar and Prayag every sixth year. The pilgrimage runs for one and a half months at each of these places and is billed as the “biggest gathering on earth”. There is no way to determine accurately, the number of pilgrims present in the water on the most auspicious day. Figures vary widely from two million to eight million. In 2001, more than 40 million gathered in Prayag, while at the Ardh Kumbh in 2007, the figure was estimated at a staggering 70 million on the 45th day.
To bring a revolution in the mind set of people is a very big achievement, a very difficult job which Dr. Pathak has brought about Pratibha Devisingh Patil Former President of India
The last Kumbh Mela held in 2010 in Haridwar is estimated to have drawn between 30 million and 70 million pilgrims. In 2013, the Maha Kumbh Mela began on 14 January at Prayag and it was reported that more than 100 million people were there (for the record, the next Kumbh Mela is scheduled to be held at Nashik on the banks of the Godavari river this year). Amongst them were 100 “special ladies” witnessing this most auspicious Hindu event for the first time in their lives. They were former scavengers, all members of the caste of untouchables who had been “liberated” by Dr. Pathak’s efforts. Before “liberation” they cleared human waste with their bare hands. The price of such a degrading occupation was severe: ostracism from general society, they lived in small clusters well outside villages or towns, they were not allowed
to draw water from common wells and some were made to wear bells around their necks to alert people passing by. Social ostracism also meant they could not enter temples to offer prayers. But that was in the past. The popularity of Sulabh’s two pit toilet has had the twin effect of freeing scavengers from their degrading occupation, and helped transform social attitudes. It is now becoming increasingly acceptable for this community to be seen in places of worship including taking a dip in the river Ganges and or sitting and dining with upper caste Hindus. Ms. Usha Chaumar, Honorary President of Sulabh International said she had no words when she learnt that Dr. Pathak had arranged for them to attend the Kumbh Mela. When she entered the holy waters of the Ganges, it was beyond her wildest dream. “Dr. Pathak and Sulabh have totally changed our lives and we will forever be grateful. Not only have they liberated us, but they have gone further and brought us to perform this ritual and dine with Hindu priests,” she said her voice full of emotion.
Former Prime Minister of India Chandra Shekhar who once said to his personal assistant Raghupati at the time of his death that Dr. Pathak is so shy that he never asked for any favour which he could have done for him easily
Ms. Dolly who is pursuing an undergraduate degree said that she is the first from her community to have performed the Kumbh Mela. Before “liberation” she was forced to accompany her mother to clean bucket toilets! “I consider myself very lucky to be here. Such rituals are usually done by the elderly and for someone at my age (nearly 30) to come (here) is nothing short of a miracle and I consider Dr. Pathak as a living god,” she said. Their presence drew the attention of scores of foreign visitors and I tried countless times to explain how they must have felt, walking 500 meters from their campsite to the holy river. I think I failed but that walk will be forever engraved in their souls. The holy dip had washed away centuries of discrimination and dirt.
LIFE AND COLOUR TO WIDOWS
“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.” - Mother Teresa
If I had divine powers and was able to resurrect people, my first choice would surely be Mother Teresa, even if it were only for a few minutes to hug her or shake her hand. But I also consider myself extremely lucky to have met a person who must have been ‘born’ by the same mother as Mother Teresa, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak. When the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Prof. Rajmohan Gandhi first met Dr. Pathak, he said,“I am the son of the son of Mahatma Gandhi, but Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is the son of his soul. If we were to meet Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, he would first greet Dr. Pathak for the noble work that he is doing and then greet me. Dr. Pathak has restored human rights and dignity to people engaged in the manual cleaning of human excreta which they carried as head-load.” Dr. Pathak has also put the smiles back on the faces of hundreds of widows eking out a miserable existence in the holy city of Vrindavan. He has ensured that they get full medical care and a monthly allowance; they are learning vocational skills while some are even learning English, Hindi and Bengali.
The widows are now in a far better position as compared to earlier when they were not getting any support. For them, Dr. Pathak is “Baba”, a word hard to describe in English but something close to a guru and father rolled into one, someone who feels their pain, provides comfort and sanctuary
Interestingly, many were able to take part in Holi celebrations which Hindu tradition bars them from because of their widowhood, which is deemed inauspicious. Holi (also called Holika or Phagua) is an annual festival celebrated on the day after the full moon in the Hindu month of Phalgun (early March). It celebrates spring, commemorates various events in Hindu mythology and is a time for disregarding social norms and indulging oneself. Holi is celebrated generally with friends and family. Coloured powder is mixed with water and sprayed on each other using plastic pumps, water pistols and so on. There’s a lot of eating and drinking and people tend to get a little wild in the streets. Celebrated all over India since ancient times, Holi was originally an agricultural festival celebrating the arrival of spring. It is interwoven with the legend of Prahlad, who had been forbidden by his father, the evil king Hiranyakashipu, from worshipping Lord Vishnu. But when Prahlad refused to heed him, the father challenged Prahlad to the ordeal by fire, where he and his wicked aunt Holika would be seated on a wooden pyre which would then be set ablaze. Prahlad accepted the challenge and as the flames leapt upward, prayed for deliverance from Lord Vishnu. Prahlad came out of the flames alive and unharmed but Holika, who was supposed to be immune to fire, was burnt to death. It is this burning of Holika which is celebrated during Holi. Legend has it that Holika begged Prahlad for forgiveness before she died and he decreed that she would be remembered every year during Holi. For the widows, to be able to celebrate the festival of colours after so many years, was like a renewal of their own life. They sang, danced, laughed and shed tears. Young and elderly, all joined together united in the new spirit that gripped them. Dr. Pathak too joined in describing it as “a Holi of Hope. The message that goes out from the celebration is that widows want to be part of the mainstream. They too have aspirations that should be fulfilled.” I wasn’t fortunate enough to have met Mother Teresa (nor Mahatma Gandhi for that matter), but I am blessed to have met and befriended a person who has flowing in his veins, the blood of both. You can’t be this lucky in any lifetime. During my visit to India early this year, I had the opportunity to travel through the state of Uttarakhand in the north which, two years ago, had been devastated by floods. The village of Deoli-Bhanigram (also known as the Village of Widows) perched on the hills of Guptakashi, had reason to curse the disaster which rendered 32 women widows virtually overnight, and life hasn’t been the same since.The trek to the village was uphill for about 3 km, that and the altitude was telling on my lungs. But it was worth it, hearing first hand from those affected how they were coping and trying to rebuild shattered lives. One woman Savita Tiwari, 30, said her life had been completely overturned by the floods. With her husband no more, her in laws were making life difficult, wanting her to leave the house. With two small children, one born a month after the floods, she was vulnerable and lacked support. Sulabh’s intervention helped her put her life together and
Dr. Pathak did not start out to change the world. He started out to help some scavengers in a few villages in Bihar. As you start out today, you do not change the world overnight but I encourage you to try to make a difference Timothy J. Roemer Former Ambassador of United States to India Commencement address delivered in the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA on 21st May, 2011
provide for her children. Dr. Pathak has also adopted the youngest of the widows, 23 years of age, with a small baby. I had a chance to speak to the former village headman, Keshab Tiwari, who told me that immediately after the disaster more than 200 NGOs and well-wishers swarmed their village with promises and offers of help. But only Sulabh properly understood the magnitude of the problem.“Most of the organizations that came to help were only thinking short term, a blanket today, and food supplies tomorrow,” he explained. “Sulabh’s assistance went much further. Since they adopted the village in 2013, it has been providing widows, elders and children Rs. 2,000 every month.” Sulabh also adopted affected families of six other villages nearby, with each family provided Rs.1,000 a month. Twenty five sewing machines were gifted to the village women so they could earn extra income, also 12 computers for the village youth to learn basic skills. Dr. Pathak told me on my return from Uttarakhand, that when he first heard of the tragedy, his
immediate concern was to ensure that no one went to bed hungry, and that goal was achieved fairly quickly. The next goal was to provide the women, the widows, with basic skills since the family breadwinners were no more. All of which Dr. Pathak accomplished successfully.
A BRIDE’S STAND
“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do” - Henry Ford
During my travels through India in 2012, I noticed a story in a local paper which soon hit the national headlines. It happened in the city of Bhopal, about 700 km south of Delhi, and it electrified the people at Sulabh, Dr. Pathak describing it as “a courageous yet peculiar move”. Bride Anita Narre walked out of her in-law’s home two days after her wedding because there was no toilet there. On the first day of her new life, she recalled having to walk two kilometers from her in-laws home to ease herself. She returned to her parent’s home, resolving never to return and suffer that indignity and humiliation, until her husband had a toilet installed. “I grew up in an environment that had toilets within the premises of the home,” she said. “I confided in my husband and when I saw nothing was being done about it, I took matters into my own hands.” A Sulabh team (I was fortunate to accompany them) drove to Bhopal and proceeding directly to her parent’s home, presented her with a cheque for over Rs. 7 lakh as an award for the courageous stand which she took. “This is the first time I have heard of an Indian woman leaving her husband because he didn’t have a toilet in the premises of his house,” Dr. Pathak said giving his reasons, adding, “This move is not only an insult to her in laws but also to her parents but because of her cause, we have decided to award her.” Her husband, Shivram said he understood how his wife felt, but his financial situation did not afford him the luxury of a toilet at home. However, clearly shaken by the turn
of events, he sought assistance from the local government and in a little over one week, a toilet was installed at home. Anita subsequently returned. If I was career counsellor, I would have advised her to pursue a career in politics! Anita says it will be a dream come true for her when women in every corner of India can avail of clean and hygienic toilet facilities and not walk long distances at odd hours to answer the call of nature. In more recent times, there was another article in one of the papers about a would-be bride asking for a toilet rather than the customary gifts of jewellery and ornaments. It’s hard to put a conclusion to anything that Sulabh does, it would be so unfair. But minus Sulabh, life could have been catastrophic for some, while for others it would have meant continued degradation. Sulabh is today a household name but the people running the show are some of the humblest and most modest human beings I have ever met. In the five odd years that I have come to know and love Sulabh, I
have gained invaluable insight into India, life and human relationships. Ritu Ghatourey words seem to capture Sulabh’s motto, “Believe where others doubt. Work where others refuse. Save where others waste. Stay where others quit. And you will win where others lose” I often wonder within myself, how I can ever repay the kindness shown to me and my family and it’s only recently that the answer dawned on me. I need to pass on this kindness to others, to my daughter, my family, at my workplace and most important in what I love doing the most, writing. The widows are now in a far better position as compared to earlier when they were not getting any support. Some of their stories underscored how difficult life was until Sulabh entered their homes. For them, Dr. Pathak is “Baba”, a word hard to describe in English but something close to a guru and father rolled into one, someone who feels their pain, provides comfort and sanctuary. One has seen the power of money, the power of post and place, but it pales into insignificance compared to the power of compassion, love and respect for others that is ingrained in Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak. It has transformed lives, creating a rare magic.
This designer’s low-cost toilet has helped the planet, improved sanitation for millions-and freed countless scavengers from a life of cleaning human waste TIME Magazine Heroes of the Environment
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