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What to do with our waste: the Sulabh solution

By Lalitha Sridhar

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak is founder of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement, which has constructed over 650,000 toilet-cum-bath complexes and 62 excreta-based biogas plants in India. In this interview he explains how he brought the 'untouchable' subject of toilets and sanitation to the national agenda

Excerpts from a conversation with Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement and Padma Bhushan awardee

Sulabh has been declared one of the global best practices and conferred a special consultative status by the economic and social council of the United Nations. Sulabh International has constructed over 650,000 toilet-cum-bath complexes and 62 human-excreta-based biogas plants over the last 25 years in India, including the largest such facility in the world in Shirdi, Maharashtra. More than 10 million people, many of whom have never had access to a proper toilet all their lives, use Sulabh shauchalayas every day.

"Sanitation is not a priority even though it is a major cause of disease"
When I first started in 1970, people laughed at me. Sanitation is not a priority even though it is a major cause of disease. I devised a sustainable model of a toilet back in 1970. It used up very little water, did not pollute the environment and was cheap. But nobody was interested. In my home state, Bihar, manual scavenging was widespread. This is the dehumanising practice of lifting night-soil with one's bare hands, from dry latrines. My greatest concern was to liberate dalits who were caught in the trap of being night-soil workers. Nobody spoke for them and even today they are hated by the very people whose filth they clean up. Something had to be done.

"The subject of toilets itself was considered 'untouchable' by the Indian authorities"
In fact, this was Mahatma Gandhi's aim. He insisted that whoever came to his ashram in Sabarmati had to clean his or her own night-soil. He also said: "I may not be born again and if it happens, I would like to be born in a family of scavengers so that I may relieve them of the inhuman, unhealthy and hateful practice of carrying headloads of night-soil." The subject of toilets itself was considered 'untouchable' by the Indian authorities. Even though I had a good alternative, nobody took me seriously.

Finally, in 1973, almost four years after I first became involved in the subject (I was assigned the task as part of the Gandhi centenary celebrations), the Ara municipality commissioner came to my rescue. He gave me the job of constructing six toilets. Buxar came next. After that there was no looking back.

"To my mind this is not just a caste issue it is also a status issue"
When I first started, I myself had a problem working with the subject of toilets and scavenging. I had to overcome my attitudinal handicap. To my mind this is not just a caste issue it is also a status issue. I am not defensive when I say I am a Brahmin. When Ram Vilas Paswan asked in parliament: "Will Brahmins not do this work (of human scavenging)?" Indira Gandhi replied she had already done it during her stay at the Sabarmati ashram. Gandhiji followed it as a rule and expected his visitors to do the same. Paswan wanted to know, "When are you going to end this?" And Mrs Gandhi said she could not say when it would end until such time as alternative sources of employment were in place. There is no point going from a so-called 'dirty' job to becoming a criminal.

"The sad reality is that a scavenger cannot escape the trap of his or her birth so easily"
Mrs Gandhi initiated the scavenger rehabilitation programmes. The sad reality is that a scavenger cannot escape the trap of his or her birth so easily. Like a blacksmith becomes a blacksmith, a scavenger becomes a scavenger. They feel like they don't have anywhere else to go. I strongly believe education will lead to the empowerment of scavenger communities. To this end, at Sulabh, we run schools and vocational training centres to open up avenues of alternative employment. To give just one example, I recently took up the cause of a community of scavengers in Alwar, a small town in Rajasthan. They asked me what else they could do to earn their livelihood. I told them not to worry, that we would give them Rs 1,005 per month as a stipend. I assured them that they would be trained so that they could become self-sufficient.

The scavengers stopped cleaning latrines on March 31, this year. They do not want to go back to their old jobs. That's how little time it takes to become aware of one's rights. I assured them I would take care of them. Now they are determined to make a better life for themselves.

"Many Sulabh complexes run on human-excreta-based biogas that is converted into electricity"
The Sulabh movement employs thousands of workers. We have so far 'liberated' 50,000 scavengers from the practice of physically cleaning and carrying human excreta. But there is still work to be done. In spite of the 1994 ban, the practice of human waste scavenging is still prevalent, although every state government claims that it has been eradicated. Sulabh has proven that there are technologies that can be applied to relieve scavenger communities of this demeaning practice and still get the job done. That is what we have to work on.

Our twin-pit-pour-flush toilets consume only two litres of water per use. The excreta accumulates in two pits. When one is full, the family switches to the other in a process that lasts four-five years. In that time, the excreta is converted into dry manure. Many Sulabh complexes run on human-excreta-based biogas that is converted into electricity. The system is ecologically self-sustaining and can be built (for individual homes) for a nominal sum of Rs 500. Sulabh aims to set up clean living environments, making possible a good and productive community life in a new and discrimination-free social order. Our technologies are sustainable, replicable and affordable.

"Solutions cannot be impractical, they have to be pragmatic"
In the past there was a lot more space, and although open defecation was the norm people followed a few basic rules of sanitation. They would dig a shallow pit and, after completing their ablutions, cover it with soil or grass. Buddha, in conversation at Vaishali with his disciple Anant, in the Their Gatha, has spoken about where and how to urinate; where and how to defecate; and how to build urinals. He stressed the need for toilets.

At Sulabh we believe that sanitation has to be affordable. There is no point building something impressive that the majority of people cannot afford. Modern sewerage and sanitation systems are a terrible drain on the exchequer -- they are extremely expensive to build and maintain, they need a continuous supply of running water in their processing systems and, in the end, they are difficult to run efficiently so most of the sullage is thrown untreated into our natural water bodies, polluting the water. Sulabh is modern and yet, at the same time, accepted by the villagers. Solutions cannot be impractical, they have to be pragmatic.

"Scavenging was banned by a 1993 Act of parliament"
In order to implement the Act, every state assembly must pass it. Only six states have done so. Although there are simple solutions available they are just not applied. What technology providers must take into consideration are our socio-cultural factors. Just say: whoever constructs a toilet will get a loan from the bank. Also, like we are doing at Sulabh, train 3,000-5,000 NGOs and give them support. Communities can even start up on their own with a little guidance. We welcome competition! On this basis, in a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 15 years, the whole country can be covered.

"Even though we spend large sums on buildings, when it comes to toilets we don't bother"
The prime minister has written to the Planning Commission and the Human Rights Commission about provisions for proper sanitation and the liberation of scavengers. And I have ready answers to the problem. Everybody talks but where are the efforts? It is possible to improve matters. If Gandhiji were alive, it would have been achieved. Rajiv Gandhi was very dynamic. Mrs Indira Gandhi was very keen. Atal Behari Vajpayee also wants to do something. But there is a lack of focus. Toilets have never been much of a priority. Even though we spend large sums on buildings, when it comes to toilets we don't bother.

"Women are the worst sufferers"
Because of the lack of sanitation facilities, women have to attend to nature's call before sunrise or after sunset. They have to exercise control and this has a negative impact on their health. Girls drop out of schools because of the lack of toilets. Finally, 70% of manual scavengers are women. If there are no toilets everyone suffers, but women suffer more. If there are no toilets in schools, everyone suffers, but girls suffer more. Sanitation is definitely a gender issue.

(Lalitha Sridhar is a journalist based in Chennai)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2003