Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

Bindeshwar Pathak

As the 6-year-old son in an upper-class Brahmin family, Bindeshwar Pathak wanted to know what would happen if he touched a scavenger, one of India's "untouchables," stuck at the bottom of the country's social order and fated to collect and dispose of human waste. When he did, his grandmother punished him by forcing him to swallow cow dung and urine, and making him bathe in water from the Ganges. "This issue has bothered me since," says Pathak, 66, who describes himself as a humanist and social reformer. "If they continue to clean human excreta, they will not be accepted into society."

Discrimination against scavengers is only part of India's sanitation issue. Today, despite India's rollicking economic growth, some 110 million households remain without access to a toilet and 75% of the country's surface water is contaminated by human and agricultural waste. More than half a million children die each year from preventable water- and sanitation-related diseases such as diarrhea, cholera and hepatitis. Pathak, who lived with a colony of untouchables for three months in 1968 — "If you want to work for a community," he says, "then you must build rapport within that community" — realized the only way to solve the problem was to develop a clean method of human-waste disposal that would be cost-effective for the average Indian household and would, at the same time, rid the country of the practice of scavenging. He developed the technology for a new toilet and founded the nonprofit Sulabh Sanitation Movement to bring his creation to those who needed it the most.

Pathak's twin-pit toilet, which costs a minimum of $15 to make, can be installed in any village, house or mud hut. While one pit is in use, the other is left covered. Within two years, the waste in the covered pit will dry up, ridding itself of pathogens, so that it's suitable for use as fertilizer. The toilets use 0.4 gal. (1.5 L) of water per flush, as opposed to the 2.6 gal. (10 L) required by conventional toilets. They also eliminate the need for manual scavenging, so Pathak's NGO — now called the Sulabh International Social Service Organization — also runs rehabilitation programs for out-of-work scavengers, teaching them the skills they need to find new jobs. In 2003, Pathak set up a vocational center in Alwar, Rajasthan, where women are trained in tailoring, embroidery, food-processing and beauty treatments. Last year, some three dozen of the trainees were flown to New York City to participate in a fashion show held at the U.N. headquarters to mark the International Year of Sanitation.

More recently, Pathak has perfected an excreta-based biogas plant that generates biogas to be used for heating, cooking and electricity. He's constructed 68 such plants in India. His toilets, the design of which he's made available to NGOs around the country, are used by 10 million people daily, helping push the number of people in rural India with access to a toilet from 27% five years ago to 59% today. Pathak's technology has also been used to construct over 5,500 public-toilet complexes in cities across south and central Asia, for people who are homeless or who have no sanitation in their houses. The word sulabh — which means simple in Hindi — has become synonymous with the public toilet.

Although the practice of manual scavenging became illegal in India in 1993, there are still 115,000 scavengers working in the country today. But thanks to his innovation and his rehabilitation programs, Pathak estimates that India will be scavenger-free within five years. "If the government wanted, they could solve the problem in a single day," he says. "But I'll take the pessimistic view."

'Always clean up after yourself. You are responsible for the waste you produce and you should ensure that it's disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.' — Bindeshwar Pathak