How Untouchability Fuelled Bindeshwar Pathak’s Mission To Revolutionise Sanitation

The experience of being forced to drink a mixture of milk, clarified butter, curd, cow urine, and dung to purify him after touching a so-called ‘lower-caste’ woman’s sari inspired Bindeshwar Pathak’s lifelong commitment to improving sanitation

Drinking a mixture including cow urine, dung to purify him after touching lower-caste woman's sari inspired Bindeshwar Pathak's mission

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Indian sociologist Bindeshwar Pathak was around seven when he triggered an uproar at home by touching a poor and so-called ‘lower-caste’ Valmiki woman’s sari. His alarmed upper-caste Brahmin family immediately called a priest, who made matters worse. The boy must be banished, the priest ordered before the boy’s mother intervened to save him.

The priest would relent and suggest a way out. He said the boy could purify himself only by plunging into the cold water of the holy Ganga and drinking a mixture of milk, clarified butter, curd, cow urine, and dung as a remedy.

Bindeshwar Pathak’s grandmother, who would sprinkle holy Ganga water over the floor every time the woman walked for having ‘polluted’ it, prepared the mixture and forced him to have it, leaving him further traumatized. The experience, however, would inspire his lifelong commitment to improving sanitation.

Pathak soon understood why the woman, who cleaned their toilet as part of the centuries-old system under which her community was assigned the task of collecting and cleaning out night soil, was subjected to such degrading treatment. The community was shunned as untouchable and not even allowed to draw water from wells unless upper-caste people did it for them.

Untouchability and the treatment of the lowest castes as barely human were in theory banned in India in the 1950s. But it continued to be practised also because most Indians did not have toilets and needed scavengers.

Pathak, who died in August 2023 at 80, thought people could clean toilets themselves if they had flush toilets and allow scavengers to find alternative jobs and lives that are more dignified. The toilets could make India cleaner and healthier too as pit toilets also spread disease.

With this in mind, Pathak formed an organisation named Sulabh Shauchalaya (accessible toilet) in 1970. A year earlier, Pathak would design a cheap toilet; basically a sieve-type clay-lined pit. He made it flushable with water leached into the soil. The dry solids would degrade into mulch without a smell and also be used as a fertiliser.

Authorities in a town in the eastern state of Bihar ordered two models of the toilet in 1973 and thus began its popularity. As many as 110 million such toilets had been installed across India by 2020. Pathak built India’s first public lavatory or Sulabh Shauchalaya in 1974 in Bihar’s Patna. Sulabh Shauchalayas are now ubiquitous across India and around 20 million people use them daily.

Pathak remained determined despite all odds. His obsession with building toilets appalled his family. Bindeshwar Pathak’s father-in-law, who was embarrassed to tell his friends what his son-in-law did for a living, disowned him. But Pathak remained committed to his mission. When he ran out of money, he sold his wife’s jewellery to keep building the toilets.

Seeing a boy die as no one rushed to rescue him from a bull because he was untouchable increased Bindeshwar Pathak’s determination. In his 20s, he spent three months among scavengers in Bihar’s Bettiah. He witnessed the humiliation meted out to scavengers when he lived among them for his PhD research in the late 1960s. Pathak experienced the stench and the filth they dealt with.

In its citation, the Stockholm Water Prize nominating committee noted in 2009 that the results of Bindeshwar Pathak’s endeavors constitute ‘one of the most amazing examples of how one person can impact the well-being of millions.’

In her obituary of Pathak in the Guardian, Amrit Dhillon wrote Pathak poured his life and energy into making India a cleaner place from the moment he reached adulthood until his death. The public toilets Pathak built offered Indians access to clean sanitation across the social spectrum even as his identity as India’s ‘Toilet Man’ horrified his fellow Brahmins since their status does not allow them to touch unclean toilets.

Pathan’s determination speaks for itself. Sulabh has built around 1.3 million household toilets and over 10,000 public toilets. Its toilet complexes also have bathing and washing areas available for a nominal fee. The toilets are designed to produce biogas and are connected to fermentation facilities. The model has been replaced across several underdeveloped nations with NGOs and public health initiatives globally replicating it.

United Nations HABITAT and Centre for Human Settlements declared a Global Best Practice Sulabh’s twin pit, pour-flush toilet technology. The UNDP recommended the use of its pay-per-use public facilities around the world. That the toilets are sustainable requiring only 1.5 litres of water per use to flush also helped Pathak revolutionize national sanitation even though his mission would fully come to fruition only when manual scavenging is completely eradicated.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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