Bindeshwar Pathak realized that India’s future depended on toilets
meit all started with boredom. Bindeshwar Pathak, then seven or so, wondered why the thin little woman who sometimes came through the back door, selling bamboo utensils to his Brahmin family, was called “inaccessible”. He asked why his grandmother was sprinkling holy Ganga water over the floor where the woman had walked, and she was told that she was polluted. So, one day, he wanted to touch her sari, to see what would happen to his body.
Nothing happened to him. But trouble started in the house. They cried in the pandit; he said that Bindeshwar must be expelled. His mother interceded to save him from that, but the rest of the priest’s treatment was almost as terrible. He had to go into the cold water of Ganga and, much worse, drink a mixture of milk, ghee, curd, cow’s urine and cow dung, to purify himself. Grandma considered it seriously and took it down.
Later he learned the reason for it. The poor, crippled woman belonged to the Valmiki community, the lowest caste. Most of the women made a living by collecting night soil, cleaning it out of buckets and dry pit latrines with a metal brush and pan but often with bare hands . They then carried it on their heads, in baskets, to some place. For this work they were distracted, even after they had bathed. They could not use the wells unless a “pure” soul drew water for them. Shopkeepers threw the goods they bought, and sprinkled water over their money. It was okay to touch a dog, but not those people who were just like him.
Since 1950 the idea of ”untouchables” has been banned in India. It continued because they did their job; because most Indians, if they had toilets in their homes, had pits that needed cleaning. The Pathak family did not hire anyone for that because, in their spacious and comfortable house, they did not have a toilet. It was not in the least unusual; most Indians at that time had none. Every day at 4am Bindeshwar would hear the women of the family going to relieve themselves, safely in the darkness and in the trees.
Thus began his obsession with sanitation, which soon became a mission. The equation was simple. If Indians had proper flushing toilets, they could clean themselves. If the spies were not needed, they could, with training and support, find other jobs and lead a dignified life. India could be cleaner, healthier (since pit latrines spread disease) and, in time, more equal. Liberation of traitors was Mahatma Gandhi’s dream, even stronger than independence; now he had it. Helping another human being was a prayer to God. In 1970 he founded an organization, Sulabh Shauchalaya, meaning simply “accessible toilet”. Officials might not mind discussing his work over tea, but he sometimes felt he loved it more than his children or his wife.
The key to it all was his cheap flush toilet, essentially a sieve-like pit lined with clay, flushable with just a liter of water, from which black or gray water spewed out. -into the soil and in which the dry solids gradually decomposed. into an odorless mold that could fertilize fields. He designed in 1969; in 1973 a local village in Bihar commissioned two demonstration models for the village building. They caught him. By 2020, 110m had been installed across the country. In 1974 he built the first public toilet in India, with 48 seats, a urinal and 20 bathrooms. Pee cost one rupee, poo two. When it opened in the city of Patna, 500 people used it on the first day. By this year almost any bus stand, railway station or market had its own sulav shauchalaya; about 20m used them every day. The income subsidized smaller community toilets outside in the villages and toilets in the schools, which encouraged girls to attend.
That success was born of struggle, some of it deliberate. Shortly after university he spent three months among skiers in the town of Bethiah, enduring the sting, the humiliation, and the world that was in his hair. One day he saw a little boy killed by a bull because, because he was unable to speak, no one would help him. This redoubled his resolve to nationalize his mission, although few listened. His family was haunted by his peculiar, disgusting obsession; his father-in-law rejected him. He ran out of money to build the toilets, and had to sell his wife’s decorations to keep going.
As his inventions spread, however, the scavengers began to rise. He set up centers for the women where, in the same navy blue saris, they could learn to read, write and open bank accounts, and train as embroiderers and candle makers. He also took them on trips to the Nathdwara temple, which banned such women, and the 5-star Maurya Sheraton restaurant in Delhi. In both places, those in charge begged to remove the women; in the gentlest Gandhian manner, he refused. By this year, according to his estimate, about 200,000 women had been freed.
Others, too, needed his help. He took up the case of 10,000 widows of Vrindavan, who had abandoned their families to live on mattresses in government shelters in Krishna’s childhood city. The situation was terrible, but he gave them a little money each, medical care, and help to learn to read and write. Like the spies, he also raised them socially, urging them to change their mourning white for the forbidden bright clothes and celebrate Holi, the festival of colour. He almost always wore a scarlet jacket, in the lively center of a crowd.
Rewards came thick and fast. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a staunch fan, saying that toilets could be more important than temples. A change happened; but large gaps remained. Although dry pit toilets were banned in 1993, two decades later 9.6m were still manually emptied in India. In 2020 a fifth of the population was still out and about, lining fields and cuttings as the speckled trains passed and dropping their share of dirt on the t -way. And this in a country that aimed to go to Mars.
But Dr. Pathak was confident that things would improve, if the will was there. One day all the Indians, united in cleanliness, would worship together, eat together and bathe in the same pond. Even the likes of his grandmother would sit with the people they thought were dirty, and not put Ganga water in afterwards. ■