Mar 31, 2023 26 min read
The man who moved the mountain!
Imagine meeting a person who has devoted his entire life to improve the lives of our country’s most marginalised and socially outcast people giving them avenues to lead a better life, be educated, find respectable jobs, and get a rightful place in the society.
The person is none other than Mr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, an India-based social service organisation which works to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management and social reforms through education.
Dr Pathak has been hailed as a hero of the environment, a crusader for human rights and a legend of the planet. He is a recipient of Padma Bhushan by Government of India in 1991. He has been called ‘Mr Sanitation’, ‘Sanitation Santa Claus’ and ‘Laal Baba’ (by the widows of Vrindavan for having brought color back into their lives).
Dr Pathak sat down with us to reflect on his life journey, his triumphs, and tribulations and how he has treated failures and disappointments as an indicator of progress and has never been afraid of them. In conversation with Bhanu Prakash Semwal and Naveli Singh.
How were you introduced to the idea of liberating manual scavengers? Do you remember any personal experiences that piqued your interest in this field?
As a child, I was perplexed to see that the woman who came to deliver baskets and wicker winnower used to enter our house through back door. Once she left, my grandmother used to sprinkle Ganga water on the ground without fail. I was told that the woman was impure and hence the ground on which she walked needed purification. All hell broke loose one day when out of curiosity, I touched the untouchable women and my grandmother happended to see it. The consequences were severe: I was made to eat cow dung and urine, bathed in Ganga water on a wintry morning in order to cleanse and purify myself.
The condition was only worse in the village where none of the houses had toilets. The only toilet was in the village of my school which had to be cleaned manually by a set of workers called the ‘untouchables’ at that time. They did not choose to do these jobs; it had been predetermined at their birth. This community of manual scavengers was brutally treated and almost condemned to live an inhuman life. According to 1961 census, 35 lakh were involved in the manual scavenging process out of which 8L were engaged in toilet cleaning.
After I completed my education, for a while I aspired to earn money for my family, but destiny made me chose career paths that ultimately led me to pursue my calling.
I was in between jobs in the late 60s when I started working for the Bihar Gandhi Birth Centenary Committee in Patna. As a part of my job I got to read a lot about Gandhi’s ideology and life. The more I read, the firmer I became about acting on his ideology. In 1968, troubled by pathetic conditions of the untouchables, and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy and teachings, I came up with two pit technology that could replace dry latrines in the hope that this technology would eventually bring an end to the problem of cleaning bucket toilets by the community of untouchables in India.
What was your family’s reaction at that time? Did acceptance of your work come easily?
At the time, the caste system was extremely strict and deeply ingrained in our society. When I was offered a role in the ‘Liberation of Manual Scavengers’ cell of the Centenary committee, I was faced with a dilemma.
On one hand I wanted Gandhi’s vision of social equality to become a reality, on the other hand the childhood trauma of being forced to eat cow dung and cow urine still haunted me. This contradiction between the values of my family and the job given to me taxed my mind. I felt that I must build my confidence to go against my family’s beliefs. I prepared myself for the ostracism that was bound to follow.
As expected, people from my family, community and village did not welcome my involvement in the field. My father was upset, my father-in law did not want to see my face again. The decision caused a lot of heartache in the family. Since the job did not involve sufficient financial support, providing for my family also became an issue. I was ridiculed, humiliated, and called names by the people of my village.
But I truly believed that liberation and social upliftment of manual scavengers is a cause worth all the pain. I followed my heart. I knew that the cause was worth fighting for.
How did you muster the courage to face criticism and the failures that followed?
I was born into a wealthy Brahmin family in 1943. But from the year 1955 onwards our family started facing economic crisis and this continued for not less than 18 years! The condition was so severe that at times we didn’t have enough to eat and meet our necessities. We were one of the rare 'riches to rags' cases of our village.
I supported my college education by giving tuitions. When I started the sanitation movement to liberate the manual scavengers, the project was initially a non-starter and got entangled in bureaucratic processes for three years.
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 Sulabh which I had established in the year 1970. This period of my life was very difficult.
There was a time that 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. This was on top of disappointment from my family’s side.
Failures remained a constant companion in my life. But the ups and downs of life and the hardships that I faced from early on made me ready to move out of my comfort zone and try new things. From a timid and protected guy, I transformed into someone who could face disappointment and handle criticisms from the people around. I believed in my vision and trusted the saying that goes ‘A little mind cannot attend to great things’. To be great, you have to be willing to be mocked, hated and misunderstood. I had to stay strong!
I remained firm in my decision, having made up my mind to turn a page in history. I did not know whether I would be able to achieve what I was setting out to do, but I was determined to give it my best shot.
With hands folded in humility and the teachings of my mother I just kept going undeterred. I believe that ego in times of prosperity and anger during distress are two vices that we need to stay away from. A strong value system and passion towards your work will help you face any failure or hardship with dignity.
How did you dispel the fear of failure, admist the societal norms and do something no one before you was able to accomplish?
The liberation of human scavengers and the restoration of their dignity depended largely on two things. The first was that they be reskilled, educated, and empowered so that they could do alternate work. The second was that the society be sensitised and convinced that human scavengers were entitled to an equal place in society, just like anybody else.
Bringing a behavioural change is a complicated and complex process because it requires a person to disrupt their current value system and habits while simultaneously fostering a new, possibly unfamiliar set of actions.
To better understand the needs and challenges, I decided to live with the community of manual scavengers. Not only did my family scorn the idea of a Brahmin’s son living among human scavengers, even the community of manual scavengers could not believe that a Brahmin had come to live amongst them. They asked me not to demean myself! Years of ill-treatment made them believe in the society’s outlook towards them.
So you see the belief system had to be changed at both ends of the spectrum.
When I started living with them, I began to see the issues that people grappled with every day-tuberculosis, asthma, viral infections, skin diseases were extremely common among these workers. Majority of the workers also consumed alcohol to overcome the revulsion and humiliation of their daily work. No child from the settlement went to school.
So, I started teaching whoever was interested in learning. It was the first time that they had access to a teacher. Some adults also joined.
I discovered a newfound power in sharing of knowledge. As more & more people got interested in the subject, I felt encouraged & realized that knowledge was an antidote to fear.
I started going around and talking to people in villages and towns, telling them why open defecation was bad. I also discussed hygiene and health and explained how the two were directly linked to sanitation. I tried to convince people to convert their dry latrines into Sulabh toilets. People were embarrassed to talk about toilets and sanitation.
The first Sulabh toilets were constructed in the compound of Arrah municipality, courtesy the belief that Mr. R K Mishra, an officer of the Arrah municipality showed in us. People who used the toilets appreciated the difference they had created. Slowly and steadily the public trust was earned through the quality of our work.
In 1974, we constructed Sulabh toilets at Gandhi Maidan, Patna in association with the Municipal Corporation of Patna. These toilets were based on the “pay-and-use” method and had amenities for bathing. To pay even for ‘doing business’ seemed absurd to people initially. But again, when people started using the facilities they not only felt, but also smelt, the difference; the stench that hung around Gandhi Maidan was gone.
My persistence for a cause and conviction in myself helped me overcome the barriers of society.
We established vocational training centres across the country so that human scavengers could learn new skills and build new lives. They were taught to read and write in Hindi and English. Math was taught along with financial awareness so that they could manage their bank accounts. We then kickstarted a ‘Social Adoption’ initiative in which well-respected, socially well-to-do families were encouraged to ‘adopt’ a human scavenger family. The idea behind this was social upgradation.
If I had not overcome the fear of failure, I would have been one amongst many. I was able to dispel that fear on account of vast social adoption that happened. In other words, one doesn’t have to fight a fear with words, but with a series of sincere actions.
Have there been any Mentors in your life or people who have inspired you along the way ?
I have been lucky to be blessed with several mentors, who have directly or indirectly shaped my beliefs and my entire life to what it is today. My mother has been one of the biggest influences on my life. She has been my inspiration and a constant support through thick and thin. Her ability to be selfless and giving even in times of extreme poverty of her own, deeply instilled humanity and service outlook in me.
I remember once a man came to our house to borrow Rs. 10. Since we didn’t have any money to spare at that time, my mother borrowed money from someone else to help him. She said “the fact that the person sought help from us even though we were poor reflects the trust he has put in our family. So it is our duty to try to help him the best we can.” I have always tried to walk on the path she showed and help people in the field of education, medical expenses, personal needs as much as I could. The drive in me to help people actually comes from my mother.
The second biggest influence on my life would be Mahatma Gandhi. I had my initiation with his philosophy while working for the Gandhi Centenary Committee. 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 further strengthened by own life experiences.
I have also been inspired by my conversations with Mr Rameshwar Nath, a well-meaning civil servant who I met during the initial years of establishing Sulabh. Mr Nath had seen many people take the path of cheating and corruption once they succeeded. He did not want that to happen to me and hence gave me a talisman saying that whenever a temptation to cheat crept up, I should remember that Mr. Nath believed in my honesty.
I always valued and kept such people’s ideology close. I believe that one should always hold on to people who inspire us to do something good and progress in life.
What are the values and principles of your organization 'Sulabh'? How do you percolate your value system and vision within the organization?
Sulabh is regarded as a trustworthy organization, one of repute and caliber. The organization that started with 9 people has more than 60, 000 volunteers today. The vision and mission of the organization is such that honesty and integrity form the DNA of each member. I’ll give you an example, in 1974 we started working as an agency between local self-government department, local bodies and beneficiaries. At that time if the residents agreed to install a Sulabh toilet, we used to build the toilet for them using the money given by the municipality and provided a five-year guarantee for the toilet. If anything happened to the toilet during this period, it would be repaired for free. This process built confidence among the local self-government and beneficiaries about Sulabh. We slowly began to be recognized as a name that could be trusted for its high-quality work and high ethical standards.
I purposely decided not to patent my design, as it would mean that the design of Sulabh Shauchalya could not be commercially produced, used and distributed or sold without my consent. I always wanted the toilets to quickly spread far and wide as quickly as possible.
Trust and Quality is how an organization flourishes, and at Sulabh, we intend to continue with the same vigour and values.
I believe that an organizational value system is also driven by its leader. A thief doesn’t have moral authority to tell his children not to steal. We have zero tolerance for any wrongdoing. Once, a funding organization complained to me that the construction of the toilets (being constructed by Sulabh International) is not up to the mark at a particular location. I sent my engineers to review the construction quality of the toilets and found that the construction quality was sub-standard. I advised my team to raze and rebuild the toilets as per our standards and did not charge a penny from the funding organization. Sometimes beneficiaries approach us even after 5-10 years of the construction and request us for minor repairs, which we do free of cost.
We have people working across the country and systems in place. We have a battery of leaders, who are leading different verticals in the organization. We have leaders having administrative experience of more than 30-40 years. These people have worked in different fields, and they are specialists and solution providers. We don’t have any rigid hierarchy in our organization. These leaders have autonomy to take decisions. They are prepared & experienced enough to take this organization forward. People are free to approach me any time.
People who align with our value system and work ethics are always welcome to join us. We have this informal saying in the organization ‘Sulabh Aao Sulabh Jao’. After 8 decades of my life and working in this field for more than 60 years, I have a knack of knowing people in a short span of time. We do not discriminate any one based on caste, creed or religion. I believe in humanity and this philosophy is followed in my organization. I lead by example and ensure that Sulabh imbibes and reflects the same values.
Ho do you nurture Innovation and Experimentation at Sulabh?
Our origin is based on innovation to fulfil a pressing need of the society. Since then Sulabh has been experimenting across a number of areas.
While the Sulabh technology spread rapidly, we ensured that research continued to find ways of improving the technology while keeping it ecologically sustainable. With our efficient biogas plant design, Sulabh came up with the technology of generating biogas from public toilet complexes. This biogas can be used for cooking, heating or even generating electricity.
After a series of experiments, Sulabh also developed a technology that turns liquid waste from the biogas plant into a colorless, odorless and pathogen-free liquid. This liquid is full of nutrients and is excellent for use in farming.
Sulabh purified drinking water is another initiative that treats water from rivers, ponds, wells and taps to ensure that it is fit for human consumption. So this drive to improve lives and continuously innovate leads Sulabh to find means of sustainable development.
We work in the field of education, rehabilitation of widows of Vrindavan. Our aim is to challenge the existing archaic social norms and replace them with fair, inclusive and progressive approached through a combination of technology and methodology.
Namaste Bindeshwar Pathak by Sunanda Verma
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