The founder of Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement has ushered in a reform movement that is being widely lauded. No Indian has got a day named after him by New York Mayor. educationist and author Mamta Mehrotra discussed issues with him
This is the first time a government has taken up the issue of cleanliness and sanitation. How do you feel about it? Does this empower you?
The necessity is in asking oneself what has one done for one’s country and society. Now everyone is openly discussing cleanliness and sanitation, but back in 1969, no village in the country had toilets. Women and girls would have to openly defecate only once it was dark which caused many problems.
During that time girls didn’t attend schools and if they did, they would be home by afternoon since there weren’t any toilets in the schools. Apart from this, the open defecation had environmental consequences leading to diseases like diarrhoea and cholera.
The situation in the cities wasn’t any better. Eighty-five per cent of the households had community toilets which were cleaned by women. Such women weren’t touched and were called “untouchable”.
In 1934 in Bhubaneshwar, Gandhi said he invited people over for a meal and they refused to eat along with the people they called untouchables. Then Gandhi wrote that Indians would eat the bullets from the British but not eat with their own people. The practices we follow will never allow untouchability to end.
Where did you get the inspiration for your work?
I wanted to become a professor of Sociology at Patna University but wasn’t able to do it. I even became a high school teacher and did odd jobs here and there. Later, in the Patna Gandhi Institution, we had a committee that was organised to celebrate Gandhiji’s 100th birth anniversary. I started working there as a social worker.
Our Secretary-General told us that the practice of scavenging is inhumane, which Gandhi wanted to end. You must complete this work. I asked him: I’m a Brahman. How can I do this? We started working towards cleanliness and removing untouchability in a place called Bettiah.
But this problem wouldn’t be completely solved by just ending the practice of scavenging. We had to invent a technology that eliminates the need for scavenging. Now our technologies not only do that but also uses human waste as compost, biogas for street lights, fuel for running generators and as cooking gas. Had we not invented these technologies, there would still be open defecation and scavenging rampant in the country.
I was married at the age of 22 and my father-in-law disapproved of my work so much that he wouldn’t see my face. In Bihar, we don’t raise our voices in front of elders, but at that time I had strongly told him that this is history in the making and that I will either make it happen or lose.
We are so happy that our Prime Minister not only talks about cleanliness and sanitation but has also started a campaign for it. Politicians and social workers have discussed these things in the past but PM Modi is the only one who has brought toilets into homes.
I would like to tell you that we are organising a Clean India, Healthy India, Green India programme on 17th September the birthday of Narendra Modi.
According to statistics, many states are lagging behind in becoming free of open defecation. What changes do you suggest for these regions?
The work the state and Central governments are doing is good but even today, there are 6.46 lakh villages in the country that are not free of open defecation. I met PM Modi and said that the only way to reach the ODF goals is to train villagers to construct their own toilets.
If a person makes 20 toilets a month, then in 12 months, he will construct 240 toilets. If we multiply 240 by 6.46 lakhs, then it will reach around 15 crore toilets, but we have to make only seven or eight crore toilets. This way we’ll be able to reach our ODF goals in one year.
Another problem is that a good toilet can’t be built with a Rs 12,000 grant. The solution is that if the loan is received from the bank, the house owner will make good toilets. With this, people should complete their tasks responsibly, just as we do.
The problem is here is that government officials come and get the work done sometimes but there’s no one to check or take responsibility for the completion of the work. NGOs can be good or bad and it’s our job to select the good ones and assign the work to them.
There is still a year left to fulfill the dream of the Prime Minister, and if we all work together with integrity and honesty, we can accomplish the goal. We have built toilets in many areas of Bihar and are working to make more. If the enlightened people in the society do this work together then they would handle it well and they would also take full responsibility for the tasks.
Bihar’s boys can learn these technologies and help construct toilets in their villages. The technology is accessible to all since it is free of patents. There were a lot of employment opportunities in the field but people seldom want such jobs. I want the youth of Bihar to come forward for this and cooperate with us all to make our villages clean and healthy.
One can learn a lot by observing the work we have done in villages so far. I assure you that I will assist the people who have the courage to take up such work.
And I am not saying it is free work. (Picking up a bottle from the side, he said) You see this bottle. this is impure water from shallow lakes and ponds collected by us and purified with a technology that has been developed at Sulabh. These bottles are being sold aty Rs five.
You can easily learn the technology from us, because it is free, and earn money using this unique technology.
You seem to share a lot with PM Modi.
The one thing I have in common with PM Modi is that we’re both honest men with integrity. Today, one can see how one honest PM’s work is causing major changes in the national landscape. He believes that everyone needs to be honest and loyal to the country. The country wouldn’t develop further unless these qualities are addressed first.