Surrounded by latrines and soap dispensers, sanitation charity Sulabh International founder Bindeshwar Pathak is most at home in the toilet, which he vows to introduce to every impoverished home in India.
Affectionately known as India’s “toilet guru,” Pathak, 72, has spent four decades working to improve sanitation in a country where half of the population relieve themselves in the open air.
Inspired by former Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, a champion of cleanliness, Pathak has more recently been spurred on by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who wants to make India free of open defecation by 2019.
“India has the technology and the methodology. What we lack is infrastructure,” Pathak said of Modi’s vision, as he took reporters on a tour of the cheap, eco-friendly toilets that his New Delhi-based charity has developed.
“We also need funds to the tune of US$42.3 billion considering each toilet will cost about US$320,” he said, making quick calculations on a piece of paper. “We can’t claim to be the next superpower when we don’t even have something as basic as a toilet for everyone.”
Modi was due to launch an international cleanliness drive yesterday, after pledging in August to ensure all households have toilets in the next five years.
From top ministers to lowly officials, all were expected to go to work yesterday and clean their government buildings — including the toilets — many of which stink of stale urine and are littered with rubbish and spit.
“This mission ... aspires to realize Gandhi-ji’s dream of a clean India,” Modi said recently after pledging during the May election campaign to build “toilets first, temples later.”
The UN Children’s Fund estimates that almost 594 million — or nearly 50 percent of India’s population — defecate in the open, with the situation acute in rural areas.
About 300 million women and girls are forced to squat outside often in the dark, exposed not only to the risks of disease and bacterial infection, but also harassment and assault by men.
The issue was thrown into the spotlight in late May when two girls, aged 12 and 14, were allegedly attacked as they went into the fields to relieve themselves. Police are investigating if they were gang raped before being lynched.
Pathak has already constructed 1.3 million toilets for households using his cheap, two-pit technology. When one pit is filled, it is covered, and the other pit is used. Within two years, the waste in the covered pit dries up, ridding itself of pathogens and ready for use as fertilizer.
Such toilets use less than four liters of water per flush compared with 10 liters used by conventional latrines and do not require attachment to underground sewer lines, which most villages do not have.
Pit toilets also eliminate the need for the task of manually removing toilet waste by workers who are seen as the “ultimate untouchables” in India. Pathak is determined to banish the need for such “manual scavengers,” who often scoop out excrement with their hands into wicker baskets.
Himself an upper-class Brahmin, Pathak recounted how he was made to consume cow dung and urine as part of a “purification ritual” after he touched a woman, who used to clean latrines, as a 10-year-old boy.
“This moment has stayed with me,” Pathak said.
His charity has also harnessed “bio-gas” produced from human waste which is used to generate electricity to power the charity’s offices. The gas has also been bottled for use as fuel for cooking.
Despite his achievements, Pathak said his task is far from complete, and he is determined to change cultural and social attitudes toward toilets. Many people in India consider toilets unhygienic and prefer to squat in the open, believing it is more sanitary.
“Many people find toilets stifling,” Pathak said. “We tell them that you can keep the top of the toilet uncovered if you want to have a feel of defecating in the open.”
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