Eco-Sanitation is Surely a Way of Life…
The celebrated novelist, E.M. Forster, the author of “A Passage to India” wrote the preface to the book ‘Untouchable’ by Dr. Mulk Raj Anand. A passage from the preface: “No God is needed to rescue the Untouchables, no vows in self-sacrifice and abnegation on the part of more fortunate Indians but simply and solely – the flush system. Introduce water-closets and main-drainage throughout India, and all the wicked rubbish about untouchablility will disappear”. Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International and the Brand Ambassador of Swachh Rail Mission of Indian Railways, in an interaction with Kriti Nath Jha, talks more about human rights, environmental sanitation, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management and many such social reforms…
You have spent four decades working to improve sanitation in a country where half of the population still relieve themselves in the open air. Your charity, Sulabh International, has developed cheap, eco-friendly toilets and the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s ‘Swacch Bharat Abihiyan’ has enthused your mission to take it further. How do you view while walking down memory lane?
I am thankful to you for giving me this opportunity to remember the sanitation situation in India before fifty years ago. I did finish my graduation in the year 1964, became a school teacher, and did small jobs for a while. Finally, I decided to take admission in M.Sc. in Criminology in Sagar University, Madhya Pradesh. I boarded the train at Mehnar railway station, got down at Hazipur Railway junction platform to have a cup of tea. I met two of my known friends there and after having a little conversation they took out my luggage forcibly from the train and brought me to Patna to join a society – Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee which was formed to celebrate the birth centenary of Mahatma Gandhi. To cut the story short, the centenary committee, I was asked by my General Secretary to work for stopping defecation in the open and to rescue the untouchables from the demeaning practice of cleaning night soil, which was one of the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi. I lived in the village for 18 years and in that village we have to go outside for defecation in the open. My mother, sisters, aunt, grandmother, all used to go outside for defecation as the house had no toilet.
Also there were bucket toilets used by a Zamindaar in neighbouring village which were cleaned by women manual scavenges. They are ‘untouchables’. In those days toilet was a subject of taboo and nobody would like to talk about toilets and untouchables. The women had to suffer the most. They would expose to all sorts of dangers like snake bites and even animal attacks. In urban areas 85% houses used to be cleaned by untouchables. There was no public toilet and if there was any, it was like a hell on the earth. Nobody will go inside the toilet. That was the sanitation scenario in India. Only 14 towns in urban areas had sewerage system facilities and that too partially. I never knew that a time will come that I will be engaged in solving these problems.
“ Sulabh technologies have been featured as one of the five unique inventions of the world by BBC Horizon. UN-Habitat declared Sulabh technologies as one of the best practices and UNDP recommended using Sulabh Shauchalaya for replacing the bucket toilets or having a new flush toilet.
As you have rightly said, I have been working for about five decades to rescue the untouchables from the demeaning practice of cleaning night soil, to restore their human rights, dignity and to bring them on a par with others in the mainstream of society to fulfil the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi. Defecation in the open got cultural sanction in Puranic teachings, which said not to defecate near human habitation and to go at distance, dig a small pit, put some grass and leaves, then defecate. Therefore, no house even the palatial buildings of Kings and Emperors had no provision of the toilets. British rulers introduced the sewerage system for the first time in the year 1870. That technology was very costly in construction and maintenance, and also required enormous quantity of water to flush. Therefore, the system was extended to 160 towns/ cities out of 7935 (the Government notified towns/ cities are 4041). In last 146 years, there were 270 Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) established in about 1500 towns, where the pipes were laid, but there is no appropriate treatment plant for the treatment of human waste.
Mahatma Gandhi in 1915 suggested Indians to use trench latrines and the practice he suggested became popular by ‘tatti pe mitti’ (soil on the human excreta).
The million dollar question was still seeking answer on how to stop defecation in the open and how to end the practice of manual cleaning of night soil by the untouchables. I got a chance to go through a small booklet by Rajendra Lal Das and a book by WHO. I invented, innovated and developed the technology of two pit pour flush ecological compost toilet popularly known as Sulabh Shauchalaya. That has made the difference in the lives of untouchables and changed the sanitation scenario of India.
Sulabh technologies have been featured as one of the five unique inventions of the world by BBC Horizon. UN-Habitat declared Sulabh technologies as one of the best practices and UNDP recommended using Sulabh Shauchalaya for replacing the bucket toilets or having a new flush toilet.
I also introduced the system of maintenance of public toilets, the technologies and methodologies for the implementation and maintenance and follow up of Sulabh technologies have brought a great impact and changed the sanitation scenario not only in India but in Afghanistan, African countries, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam etc. These technologies of Sulabh can help to achieve the target of MDG where 2.4 billion people have access to safe and hygienic toilets.
Sulabh has built 1.5 million household toilets, both in urban and rural areas and also public toilets at 8500 public places. Recently, Sulabh has built the largest public toilet complex in Pandharpur, Maharashtra. We have so far constructed eight toilet complexes consisting of 1,417 toilet units at Pandharpur. About 1.5 lakh people are using the toilets every day. In coming days, altogether 23 splendid toilet complexes consisting of 2,858 toilet units will be constructed with provisions for lavatories, bath cubicles and urinals. There will be special toilets for physically challenged people, besides 397 toilets for VIPs. Sulabh has constructed and maintained second largest toilet in India ie., Shirdi, Maharashtra, which has 148 toilets with dressing, baby sitting, breast feeding facilities and 108 bathrooms, 2300 lockers for keeping the belongings of pilgrims. The complex is lit by electricity produced from the human excreta generated biogas plant. Approximately 50000 persons can use these facilities daily.
Under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, there are plans to get constructed individual household toilets both in urban and rural areas, public toilets in urban and rural areas as far as possible, so that nobody should go outside for defecation. Open Defecation Free (ODF) India is the dream project of Hon’ble Prime Minister of India by 2019 and it is best tribute to pay in respect of Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary.
Hon’ble Shri Narendra Modi has ignited the minds of the Indians to make India clean. As the first major initiative, all 4,50,000 schools now have toilets because of the intervention of the Prime Minister of India. Public sector undertakings took up the challenge and completed it in one year. Secondly, government officials at the district level have become enthusiastic, and they are trying to achieve the target of getting toilets built for the urban districts, so that nobody should go outside.
Some individuals also have taken up initiatives like selling ornaments, cattle, and buffalo, etc in order to get the toilets built. These are really encouraging and inspiring stories.
Like in schools, the target has to be given to all the companies, who have profits more than five crores, to adopt one district, and to provide toilets in all the houses by 2019, so that the dream of Hon’ble Prime Minister of India can be achieved.
Sulabh 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. Is there any plan to sell it on commercial basis?
In 1977 I got this idea that the biogas can be obtained from human excreta like cow dung and can be used for various purposes like burning lamp, cooking food, warming body and to generate electricity, etc. The percentage of biogas generated from human excreta and cow dung by and large is the same. Human excreta based biogas plant contains 6566% methane, 32-34% carbon dioxide and rest is the hydrogen sulphide and other gases in traces. Methane is only combustible constituent in biogas that is utilized for electricity generation. Earlier to produce electricity, the proportion of diesel was 20% and biogas was 80% in dual fuel engine, but now we have replaced dual fuel engine to biogas alone and the engine is run on 100% biogas. Under this system ignition of biogas is done through battery operated spark system. The idea of generation of biogas from human excreta is an alternative source of energy. We have constructed 200 such biogas plants in India and 5 plants in Kabul, Afghanistan. In Kabul, when the temperature went down to -30°C the biogas plant functioned very well and is still functioning.
The idea behind this is, we have no sewerage system in 7935 cities and towns. Biogas plants should be used instead of septic tank where there is no sewerage system in housing colonies, high-rise buildings, schools, colleges, hospitals, etc for disposal of human waste. The effluent discharged from biogas plant is treated through Sulabh Effluent Treatment Technology. This technology is based on aeration, sedimentation and filtration of effluent through sand and activated charcoal followed by exposure of ultra-violet rays (UV rays). After treatment the BOD is less then 10mg/l. This water can be safely discharged into any water body or can be used for horticulture, agriculture purposes or cleaning the floor of public toilets or even can be reused for flushing of toilets in drought prone area. So, human excreta based biogas plant has multiple advantages, such as improved sanitation, availability of energy and bio-fertilizer, etc.
Wherever there is a public toilet, the biogas plant can be used for selling the biogas on commercial basis, but will require more R&D.
Do you think the green initiatives of many institutions of both private and public sectors have come up with huge potential of green jobs opportunities? How Sulabh has moved to generate more such jobs in its entities?
Sulabh is giving training on a large scale to the youths whom we call the “Missionaries of Sanitation” who take forward the Sulabh Sanitation Movement and also to the masons who will construct the toilets. The amount for training will come from the Government, corporate houses, international agencies, etc. Sulabh flush compost toilet is ecofriendly, technically appropriate, socio-culturally acceptable and economically affordable. It is indigenous technology and the toilet can easily be constructed by masons, youngsters, local labourers, and materials.
Some measures have to be taken by the Government of India and the State Governments and implement them on a large scale. We have to train youths – both boys and girls as motivators to motivate, educate and train people and also to implement, maintain and follow-up the programme. Masons have also to be trained on a large scale for construction of toilets.
You have favoured Alwar and Tonk model for building toilets all across the country. How is it feasible to adopt these models to be replicated and which organization or agency should own the responsibility of the funding?
Way back in 1968, I joined the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee and there I invented the technology of Sulabh flush compost toilet (known popularly as Sulabh Shauchalaya). This simple invention proved to be momentous – an effective solution to the massive problem of open defecation (that was much worse at that time than it is now) as well as the liberating tool to free the suffering manual scavengers called ‘untouchables’ from the subhuman and health-hazardous occupation of cleaning excreta manually. Gandhiji, as many of you may be aware, was so concerned about the plight of the untouchables that he wished that he should be reborn in a family of untouchables so that he could relieve them from the sub-human occupation. I decided to fulfil his dream when I was quite young and since then this mission has became my splendid obsession.
Alongside freeing the scavengers from the sub-human work, I developed a holistic plan to restore their human rights and rehabilitate them in the social mainstream. First, I got the scavengers relieved from the work of cleaning excreta by getting the bucket toilets (cleaned by scavengers) converted into Sulabh flush toilets. The owners of the bucket toilets did not raise objections because they got the better option of Sulabh flush toilets. Next, I set up the centres to educate the illiterate scavengers, giving them vocational training in making eatables like papad, noodles, pickles and skilled them in market-oriented trades likes tailoring, embroidery, fashion-designing, beauty-care, etc. Vocational training enabled them to earn their livelihood, freeing them from economic problems.
Our other move was to attack the caste concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ that separates the twice-born castes from the rest of society. We helped the scavengers to perform the rituals and ceremonies of the upper castes. Initially, there was stiff resistance from the privileged castes who would not even allow the untouchables’ entry into temples. Here we may recall a memorable incident: after learning that the outcastes or untouchables were denied entry into the temple at Nathdwara (Rajasthan), the then President Shri R. Venkataraman resolved in October 1988 to lead them to enter the temple. On knowing this, I decided to lead a group of outcastes to enter the Nathdwara temple. We were met with resistance. But instead of fighting them, I tried to gently persuade them and was able to lead the untouchables to enter the temple. When we returned to Delhi, the then Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi and President Shri R. Venkataraman congratulated us for the good work.
I also took lead to enable the ‘untouchables’ to enter the temple in Alwar, Rajasthan. Initially there was opposition from the Brahmin families, but after our intervention they relented and allowed entry of the untouchables into the temple. We also helped the erstwhile untouchables to perform prayers and observe rituals of the privileged castes. We took them to Varanasi to take a dip in the sacred Ganga after which they offered prayers to Lord Shiva at the Vishwanath temple. After that 200 Brahmin families had meals with them. This had never happened before. Subsequently, we also took them to the holy shrine of Ajmer Sharif and the sacred Cathedral Church, New Delhi. They also visited a Gurudwara in Delhi. Thus, the people of different faiths and castes accepted the former untouchables. We took them to the temple, the mosque, the church and the gurudwara so that they can socially integrate with others.
Through these measures we succeeded in emancipating the scavengers as well as making two towns of Rajasthan—Alwar and Tonk—scavenging-free. The scavengers now freely mingle with the privileged-caste families, including those that had earlier employed them to clean and dispose night soil. Now they sit together for tea and breakfast. The scavenger women do the facials and beauty-care work for the upper-caste women. They are no longer discriminated against in the marketplace while shopping or buying fruits and vegetables. This shows a significant change in the people’s attitude. Alwar and Tonk are now free of untouchability. We have brought the untouchables into the social mainstream. We have fulfilled the dream of Gandhi, following his model of leadership through service. If the Government of India/ state government or any other agency want that manual scavengers should be relieved from their sub-human occupation, rehabilitated and brought into the mainstream of the society then they can follow Alwar & Tonk model.
Do you think the PPP model in solid waste management would yield desired result and a more sustainable environment could be achieved without jeopardising the environmental fabric?
Solid Waste Management is a problem in this country. From more than 3-4 decades, several attempts were made to generate biogas, and to convert it into energy, and also to maintain fertilizer out of the waste material. It has succeeded to some extent, but not on large scale. In some states like Chennai, it has also got constructed roads for few miles from the waste materials. Although R&D is being done, but at present lands can be filled up, fertilizer can be manufactured but no definite and conclusive technology has been evolved in India for solid waste management. It may be the Government of India or the State Governments or any other national or international agencies can develop full proof knowledge about this technology. Although all are trying to find out the solution, but success rate is not very encouraging.