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Ideas, Innovation & People | The Journey of Sulabh International

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak (Founder, Sulabh International) at Sewa Samwaad

Summary & Key learnings
By: Swati Lahoti & Bipasha

Sewa Samwaad with Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak

On the 24th of July 2021, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak graced the platform of Sewa Samwaad. The man & the inspiration behind Sulabh International and Sulabh Shauchalay had stories & anecdotes that mesmerized the audience and will surely motivate the upcoming generations.

After expressing his gratitude towards the team of Sewa, he emphasized how Sulabh International and Sewa International shared similar core values. For both, Nar Seva is Narayan Seva. Both the organizations also have mutual respect for each other as both are working incessantly towards the development of the countryand touching the lives of as many people as possible in a positive manner. The concept of Karma Yoga was beautifully articulated by him with the help of the following analogy- “When we travel to some other country, we have to convert the domestic currency to that of the country we are traveling to. Similarly, before going to the Divine Abode, the land of God, we have to earn ‘Punya’ or goodwill by doing good deeds and service.” Serving humanity is a certain way to earn Punya.

Interestingly, the Sulabh movement owes its genesis indirectly to Pathak Ji’s resolve to remove the evil practice of untouchability from the face of society. He wanted to improve the lot of the Bhangi community, the manual scavengers considered untouchable for generations. He recounted an anecdote from Lord Buddha’s life when one person belonging to the caste of the scavengers did not come forward to touch Buddha’s feet as he was considered untouchable. This hurt the sensibilities of Buddha as it did of Pathak Ji in recent times. Pathak Ji was convinced that what was needed to abolish the practice of manual scavenging was the establishment of toilets that dispensed with the need for manual disposing of the human excreta. Thus emerged the Sulabh movement.

Pathak Ji opined that stopping defecation in the open will not only mean better health for people but will also be an important factor in curtailing rapes in rural India. This is so because the female folk needs to go to the fields to relieve themselves early in the morning & find a place not frequented by people. Pathak ji shared that the problem of disposing of human excreta has plagued not only India but the west too. The sewerage system, as we know it today, has been a modern innovation. It appeared in London, New York & Kolkata in 1857, 1860 & 1870 respectively. He also quoted E.M. Forster who wrote the preface to Mulk Raj Anand’s novel ‘Untouchable’. Forster said that all that was needed to eradicate untouchability was a flush toilet.

Reminiscing about his journey in the field of sanitation, he shared that it started at an organization called ‘Gandhi Centenary’ in Patna where he volunteered to fight for the rights and the dignity of Harijans. Gandhi Ji also wanted to end the practice of untouchability. Pathak Ji volunteered there for no less than three months to  witness at close quarters the struggles of the community of Harijans. He was deeply moved by their sufferings. The manual scavengers had little opportunity of getting any employment other than their current menial occupation. In addition, they were treated abysmally by society.

Sulabh is primarily & intrinsically a social movement. To overcome the menace of manual scavenging, he founded 'Sulabh Shauchalaya Sansthan' on 5th March 1970 which later evolved into  'Sulabh International' and now 'Sulabh International Social Service Organisation', which has been working gloriously in the field of sanitation for last 50 years.

Devoting his life to this kind of work had its own share of challenges. Pathak Ji’s family was not quite enamored by the mission he had set out for himself. But his resolution was rock solid. And he stands vindicated ow when our PM Shri Narendra Modi championed the Swachh Bharat mission & vowed to make India open defecation free, a feat which we achieved in 2019.

Sulabh International is making good use of some simple but smart innovations like -

  • Two pits technology – by switching use of a pit every two years, we get fertilizer rich in nitrogen and phosphorus.
  • Biogas plant
  • Solar home innovation
  • Sulabh Effluent Treatment System in which the water is treated and then used in agriculture in drought-prone areas.

The reason for Sulabh International’s stupendous success is that the technology they have adopted is easily implementable,  replicable, and affordable. Sulabh has constructed more than 1.5 million individual household toilets so far.

It is heartening to note that the study of 'Sociology of Sanitation' has been introduced in about twenty universities and Bindeshwar Ji would like this subject to feature in the curriculum of all the universities across India.

Bindeshwar Ji devoted his entire life to improve the lot of the downtrodden. There were times when he had no food to eat and not a single penny in his pocket but his perseverance and some divine intervention kept him going and changed the destiny of millions of people in our country. He quoted Mahatma Gandhi that an ounce of action is better than tons of knowledge. He ended his talk by repeating John F Kennedy’s beautiful words- “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”.

We are grateful for his selfless service to society and for blessing our platform with his benign presence.

The event of Sewa Samwaad was chaired by Dr. Nomesh Bolia (Professor, IIT Delhi).The aim of conducting sewa samwaad is to understand the stories behind the bright spots of change,  to develop an imagination of change, and what it takes to build a community and a good social project, and Innovate by understanding the knowledge, temperament, and skills required to build on a development project.

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