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A brief biography
He has been called the ‘Toilet Man of India’ and even the ‘Sanitation Santa Claus’. He was ridiculed by many, including his own father-in-law, for choosing a career revolving around public toilets. But Bindeshwar Pathak didn’t let taunts and mockery or even fame get in his way. His aim was to create a nationwide sanitation movement revolving around community toilets and bathrooms. And with Sulabh, he did just that.
For over 50 years, Pathak strove to make a critical difference in the lives of millions of severely disadvantaged poor who couldn’t afford toilets, and those who worked as manual scavengers and faced severe discrimination in society owing to their low caste.
A lifetime of helping the lowest communities break free of their ‘hereditary’ scavenging jobs ended, appropriately enough, on Independence Day. Pathak, 80, complained of chest pain soon after he hoisted the national flag at the Sulabh headquarters in New Delhi. He was taken to a hospital and died shortly after.
The experiences that shaped him
Born in a Brahmin family in village Rampur Baghel in Vaishali district of Bihar, Pathak was no stranger to the inequities of the caste system. Women would enter his home to clean the dry latrines and would be considered invisible. When they left, his grandmother would sprinkle the house with Ganga water, in a bid to purify the place.
The young Pathak did not internalise this discrimination. Instead, he questioned it. He once touched one of the cleaning women out of curiosity. The consequences were severe: he was made to eat cow dung and urine, bathed in cold Ganga water on a wintry morning in order to cleanse and purify him. This was the level of superstition and discrimination that prevailed against untouchables.
The experience stayed with Pathak through his school and college days. In 1968, after graduating and trying his hand at a few odd jobs, Pathak joined the Bhangi-Mukti (scavengers' liberation) cell of the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebrations Committee.
Part of his training entailed living in a colony of scavengers, where he faced two life-altering experiences. One, he saw a newly wed bride being forced into cleaning toilets across town. Two, he saw a boy in a red shirt being attacked and killed by a bull and nobody coming to his rescue as he was from the scavenger community. These early life experiences made Pathak resolve to give human rights and dignity to the untouchables.
Sulabh makes its money from municipalities, which pay it to set up toilets, pay-per-use public toilets and from cleaning govt buildings and hospitals
The birth of Sulabh
In 1969, Pathak devised the technology for the country’s first public urinal, and in 1970, founded Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, combining technical innovation with humanitarian principles.
It took time to cut through red tape, but in 1973, the first brick was laid in Bihar’s Arrah municipality, where a municipal officer gave Pathak Rs 500 to construct two toilets for demonstration. The toilets impressed the authorities who sanctioned a project for wider implementation.
Pathak went from door-to-door to motivate and educate the beneficiaries to get their bucket latrines converted into Sulabh toilets. The project was a runaway success. Pathak was invited to replicate the project in Buxar, and within a year Sulabh started working in the state capital, Patna.
In Patna, Sulabh set up the first Sulabh Shauchalaya Complex – in 1974. With attendants round-the-clock, this pay-and-use toilet facility became hugely popular and Pathak was invited to set up similar facilities elsewhere in the country. Some of which also have bathing, laundry and urinal facilities.
Today, 10mn people use Sulabh countrywide and Pathak became a name to reckon with in sustainable development across the world.
In the early ’70s, when he founded Sulabh, the going was never easy. “I sold my wife’s jewellery, sold some land, took loans from friends and family, and even contemplated suicide,” Pathak recalled in an interview. Running costs of roughly around Rs 4,000-5,000 a month in those days could have been stifling, but the vision remained until Pathak became the hygiene prince of India.
One of the many initiatives taken by Pathak and Sulabh was the upliftment of the abandoned widows in Vrindavan (File photo)
Design that worked
Designs pioneered by Pathak three decades ago of creating biogas by linking Sulabh toilets to fermentation plants, have now become a byword for sanitation in developing countries all over the world. One distinctive feature of Pathak's project lies in the fact that besides producing odour-free biogas, it also releases clean water rich in phosphorus and other ingredients which are important constituents of organic manure. His sanitation movement ensures cleanliness and prevents greenhouse gas emissions.
This technology is now being extended to South Africa to bring these facilities to rural communities.
Pathak established Sulabh at the height of India’s socialist era, when non-profit organisations were being encouraged. Money was never Pathak’s driving force. “Sulabh does not have a business model,” he famously said, “but Sulabh’s model is good for business.”
Today, Sulabh makes its money from municipalities, which pay the organisation to set up toilets on behalf of individual beneficiaries (10-15% margins); another 10-15% comes in from the pay-per-use public toilets, with an extra buck earned from cleaning government buildings and hospitals. Sulabh reported a turnover of Rs 490 crore in the fiscal 2020.
Sulabh operates and maintains toilets at railway stations and temple towns across the country. It has more than 9,000 community public complexes in 1,600 towns in India. These complexes have electricity and 24-hour water supply, have separate enclosures for men and women and users are charged a nominal sum for using toilets and bath facilities.
Some of the Sulabh complexes also provide cloakrooms, telephones and primary healthcare. These complexes have been widely welcomed both by the people and the authorities due to their cleanliness and good management.
A Padma Bhushan awardee, Pathak is also the recipient of the Energy Globe Award, the Dubai International Award for Best Practices, the Stockholm Water Prize, the Legend of Planet award from the French senate in Paris, among others.
"You are helping the poor," lauded Pope John Paul II while honouring Pathak with the International St Francis Prize for the Environment in 1992.
In 2014, he was honoured with the Sardar Patel International Award for Excellence in the field of Social Development. In 2016, Bill De Blasio, Mayor of New York City, declared April 14, 2016 as Bindeshwar Pathak Day.
Not just toilets
Pathak and Sulabh have always worked towards the upliftment of the marginalised. This includes setting up vocational training institutes to help scavengers, their children and persons from other weaker sections find new means of livelihood, alleviate poverty and bring them into the mainstream of society.
It also provides financial assistance to abandoned widows in Vrindavan and has established a museum of toilets in Delhi. The organisation works to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management and social reforms through education.
Awarded Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture and Community
Well known Indian social worker and the man behind low cost toilet revolution 'Sulabh Shauchalya', Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, was honoured with the prestigious "Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture and Community "- 2018, at an award ceremony in Tokyo (Japan).
Nikkei Asia Prize is an award which recognises the achievements that have improved the lives of people throughout Asia.
Launched in 1996 by Nikkei Inc, the coveted prize honours people who have made significant contributions in one of the three areas: regional growth; science, technology and innovation; and culture and community.
Former Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh and Infosys Chairman Narayan Murthy are among few Indians who have won this award in the past.
The award was presented by Naotoshi Okada, President of Nikkei Inc.
While conferring the award, the Chairman of the Award Committee Mr Fujio Mitarai said that Dr Pathak was chosen for "tackling two of his country's biggest challenges — poor hygiene and discrimination."
He was presented the award under the category 'culture and community'.
The other two winners of the award are Ma Jun (Economic and Business Innovation), a Chinese environmentalist -- for using the power of the internet to promote cleaner industry, and Professor Nguyen Thanh Liem (Science and Technology), a Vietnamese doctor -- for bringing cutting-edge medicine for children.
Dr Pathak invented the two-pit pour-flush ecological compost toilets that has helped provide low-cost environment friendly toilets to millions of people in the developing world.
It has also ensured the safety of rural women and freedom from manual labour of removing human waste.
The Nikkei Asia Prizes were created in 1996 to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Nikkei Inc's main Japanese-language newspaper.
The company publishes Japan's leading business newspaper, The Nikki, and also operates in Japanese, English, and Chinese languages.
Experts from across the Asia-Pacific region submit nominations.
Candidates cannot nominate themselves, and Japanese individuals and organisations are ineligible.
While accepting the award, Dr Pathak dedicated it to the downtrodden section of the society for whom he is waging campaign for more than five decades.
"This award will be another milestone in my commitment to the service of the society in Asia in particular and world in general," he added.