True News|Jun 22, 2010 2:37 PM| by:

Sulabh – A Revolution like No Other

In 1967, 25 year old Bindeshwar Pathak had missed getting a First Class that would have landed him a lecturer’s job in a college. He tried being a school-teacher, a pay-roll clerk and even a street by street salesman of his grandfather’s bottles of proprietary home-cure mixture.

Deciding to get himself a Master’s degree at Sagar University, MP, he boarded a train. At Hajipur, an elderly family friend talked him out of his move and promised him a ‘good job’ instead, in the Gandhi Centenary Committee at ‘Rs.600 per mensum’. He got off the train and was led to Patna. The promised job wasn’t quite there nor did life settle down for him, but he believes that his lifelong commitment to scavenger liberation through maintenance-free toilets began that day.

Contrasting Grandpas

Or had it? Maybe it in fact began when he was a child and growing up in Vaishali and Sitamarhi. Maternal grandfather Pandit Jaya Nandan Jha had been to jail in the cause of India’s freedom, even before Gandhi did in India. He had in fact been Gandhi’s pilot to Hajipur and Vaishali. Pt. Jha was an egalitarian. The paternal grandfather was the opposite, though.

“Time spent at the Pathak household was mystifying,” says Bindeshwar. “Of the many ‘rules’, the one about not touching certain people intrigued me. Grandmother would sprinkle water on the paths such people had walked. And mutter something, as she did.”

One day, young Bindeshwar decided—as children are wont to—to ‘touch’ a classified woman, just to see what would happen and hell certainly broke loose. He was given a ritual bath and administered a nugget of cow-dung and cow-urine, chased down by water from the Ganga.

Catch India

In Patna, chasing a promised job, Pathak was not driven by that memory. He was looking to feed himself and his young wife. To today’s young educated Indians who can switch jobs with ease, name their salaries and expect not to retire from the job they begin at, getting and holding a job in India of the sixties would read like chapters from Catch-22.

The Centenary Committee’s own term was nearing its end. Chief Ministers changed frequently. Salaries were just numbers in books, not money you received in hand. There was no Rs.600 job— instead there was a temporary one at Rs.12 per month. That too was threatened because of a perceived temerity towards superiors. Pathak hung-in there in hope of a ‘permanent’ job someday. “We got by, selling trinkets from my wife’s jewel box,” says Pathak.

But an extraordinary meeting took place in 1967 that would concentrate his mind. Rajendra Lal Das, then 65, was a member of the Sarvodaya movement, that worked on Gandhi’s social concerns. Within that, Das had kept a firm focus on scavenger liberation or Bhangi Mukti. He urged Pathak to devote himself to the cause.

A clean-up caste

There have been some persuasive arguments to pin the origin of the scavenger class on Muslim conquerors of India: it started for the convenience of their ladies in purdah. There is some truth that they used captured warriors as porters of night-soil. There are clear references however, in ancient Naradiya Samhita and Vajasaneyi Samhita to designated slaves —Chandals & Paulkasas, for example— for cleaning up toilets. Those two castes are referred to in Buddhist times also. The Mughals may however have introduced the bucket-privy and created a new caste label called Mehtars. Finally, the catch-all, derisory name, Bhangi for these abused people emerged.

In 1931, when India’s population was a fourth of what it is today, the census reports nearly 2 millon Bhangis.

Gandhi is not sufficiently remembered for his crusades on Bhangis’ behalf. At the 1901 Calcutta Congress Convention he shocked delegates asking them not to engage scavengers but to clean their own toilets. Finding no takers, he shocked them some more by dramatically cleaning his own. It left a deep impression on the convention. Subsequent annual conventions had only Congress volunteers cleaning toilets. Never lived a man more fit to utter, “Be the change you want to see around you.”

Apprenticeship among scavengers

At Das’s urging, Pathak went to live in a Bhangi colony in Bettiah. The three months there were a revelation: people who cleaned others’ toilet did not care to keep their own, clean. They had accepted that they were a condemned lot.

There was time on Pathak’s hands to ponder a solution. The only solution was to make toilets maintenance-free and re-train the scavenger caste for other occupations. The western-style flush toilet and centralised water-borne sewage system was too unaffordable for India. Gandhi popped up in view again. He had coined a slogan: ‘tatti par mitti’ [soil over shit]—he was saying ‘compost it!’. He would dig a pit, put a toilet pan over it, cover it with soil when it was full and dig a new one. Several Gandhi followers practiced the simple system [See last para at this page].

In a book that Pathak treasures till today, the World Health Organisation [WHO], many years after Gandhi and after much research with all toilet available solutions, said “out of heterogenous mass of latrine designs, the pit privy emerges as the most universally applicable type.” It was low-cost, needed little water, did not pollute [-it in fact turned waste into resource], offered privacy, could be built quickly, locally, and most all needed no scavengers to maintain. So here was an answer.

Not so Sulabh [-easy]

Meanwhile, the Gandhi Centenary Year had ended, but Chief Minister of Bihar, Daroga Prasad Rai wanted the sanitation cell to be spun-off and institutionalised. Sulabh Sauchalya Sansthan [Simple Toilet Institution] was formed in 1970. R L Das was President, and Pathak its Secretary. Then the roller coaster rides began again. There was no money for Sulabh. D P Rai government collapsed. Successors were not as keen. Grants were approved but never materialised. IAS officers promised much but were transferred and gone before they could deliver. Even a letter coaxed out of Indira Gandhi by Pathak to Chief Minister Kedar Pandey, took them nowhere. Exactly the set of circumstances we would list as reasons for not being involved in India; but Pathak’s obsession with scavenger eradication made him hang in there.

Sulabh innovated and improved the Gandhi idea, endorsed by WHO. Pathak’s major contribution may well be that he realised that the pit privy was suitable for not just rural areas but for urban India also. A deeply sloping toilet pan was developed to enable effective flushing with just a mug of water. There was a double reward in that: water was conserved and there was no excess water to leach and pollute ground water. A standard, two pits and a toilet-pan, connected by a Y-channel was developed, which enables quick switch as soon as one pit filled, after say 6 months. Many variations of the Pan-Y-Two concept were developed to suit local conditions.

And then Das and Pathak sat and waited for a break that would help them take their solution to the world out there.

Rendezvous at Arrah

The break never came. After a three year wait, Pathak with a family to feed, went back to selling grandpa’s home-cure bottles. But the Sulabh obsession never left him. Walking the streets with a 15 kg load of bottles slung on his shoulders and an arm, he rued the five years in Patna chasing government help.

In the small town of Arrah, Bihar, the break finally came. Noticing a tiny sign that read, ‘Municipal Officer’, Pathak walked in and began to retail the Sulabh idea. He had an order within minutes. The officer was an enthusiastic convert and at once advanced the princely sum of Rs.500 for two public toilets. Thus it came about that India’s first two-pit, maintenance-free privy was built in Arrah in 1973 by Pathak using local masons.

From Arrah also, emerged the Sulabh business model, that holds good till this day: Sulabh will insist on advance payments but will seek no subsidies, donations, loans or grants. Orders followed in quick succession and soon made the entire Sulabh operation self-sustaining.

The next town to build Sulabh toilets was Buxar, and in 1974, Patna got a grand public toilet with 48 seats, 10 urinals and 20 baths for Rs.60,000. It became the talk of the town. All Sulabhs are pay-toilets, in order to make their maintenance sustainable. Folks in Patna were amazed that the public—that would dodge bus fares—would actually pay to use the Sulabh. Legislators and ministers visited the site daily to see this social miracle. Hopefully they learnt the lesson therein: build a quality service and people will pay.

Total clean-up

Sulabhs began to sprout everywhere and Pathak’s mind turned to alternative occupations for workers made redundant wherever a Sulabh came up. The first step was to get municipalities not to retrench them. Then his organisation began training courses to enable scavengers take up carpentry, tailoring, building trades and so on. Some women have even become beauticians. Some change that, for the once untouchables.

He started a school for their children where English-medium courses are run to enhance their self-esteem. A research wing at Sulabh constantly develops related technologies. There have been bio-gas generators, water clarifiers, compost granulators, and of course new design variations of the Pan-Y-Two system. There’s a Toilet Museum in the Sulabh campus in Delhi to make people comfortable enough to discuss the sanitation issue. He has been an activist for getting appropriate legislation passed. Recognition too has come from all over the world for his sustained work over three decades, pursuing a single idea.

Sparing Gandhi

But the task is huge. Over 7 million toilets are still being scavenged by human beings in India. We need 10 million toilets to eradicate scavenging. Get a measure of that task by noting that in 30 years Sulabh has managed to build just 1.5 million of them. More people, groups and towns have to get active.

But the Sulabh model works. Today it employs 25,000 people across India and effortlessly pays their salaries, with enough left over for research, education and training. People are willing to pay to use toilets. There are Sulabhs in 26 states of India and 3 neighbouring countries. 240 towns in India have become scavenger free. 60,000 scavengers have been liberated from the tasks they had been condemned for centuries.

Possibly the finest endorsement of its success has come out of an experiment begun recently in Alwar, Rajasthan. There Sulabh runs a training programme for women who were once scavengers. They are paid Rs.1500 per month as they learn to make and market ready-to-eat snacks. There has been effortless acceptance of their product. Now, go tell this story about India to the non-believers out there. A bemused Pathak observes: “Once their shadows were said to pollute. Now their hands make food. Once no one would eat with them. Now people eat what they make”.

And softly, he adds: “Gandhiji used to be furious about our treatment of scavengers. “In my next birth I want to born a Bhangi,” he raged. I am working to make sure he need not be born again for this.” There’s a good chance Gandhi is less angry today.

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