Reflections on the Work of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak (1943-2023)

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak: April 2, 1943 – August 15, 2023. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine this…

You’re six years old. Happy, healthy, active and curious about everything around you.

Everyday, a woman comes to your house to clean the toilet. Your grandmother has told you not to touch her. You notice that when this woman leaves, your grandmother sprinkles the pure water of the Ganges river where the woman has walked.  She doesn’t do that for anyone else!

You are confused but inquisitive. You need to figure this out. What will happen if I touch her?  So one day you decide to risk it. You hold your breath and touch the woman gently on the shoulder.  

Whew! Nothing happened!  You’re okay!  And it didn’t seem to hurt the woman.

But then one day your grandmother happens to see you touching the woman. She gets really mad. You know you have done something terrible but you don’t understand what it is. As if in a panic, your grandmother acts quickly. She calls on a couple of older neighborhood boys to hold you down while she forces dung from your cow into your mouth and forces you to eat the stuff!  It’s awful! After that she makes you drink a cup of cow urine! Yuk! And this will soon be followed by being plunged under the water of the Ganges in the middle of winter.  


The Life of Bindeshwar Pathak

Born in 1943 in a remote town in northeastern India to a Brahmin family, Bindeshwar Pathak never forgot the day he touched this “untouchable.” Though the trauma of the incident remained with him, his childhood confusion  matured into a deep sense of injustice. Later in life, the story was one he frequently shared with others.

After completing secondary school, he left for Patna University in the capital city of his home state of Bihar. In college, he became deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and chose to study sociology, After graduation, he emerged as a civil rights activist for manual scavengers, such as the “untouchable” woman he risked touching as a child. His work with manual scavengers, however, brought cruel rejection from family members and in-laws, though his wife stayed by his side. 

In his writing and in his storytelling, Pathak was clear on the meaning of “scavenger.” The work of manual scavenging persists in parts of India today.  These members of the lowest caste empty the latrines of those higher on the social ladder. Men and women, sometimes whole families, provide this essential service. Using their bare hands and a stick, traditional non-liberated scavengers scrape wet feces into an often leaky tin that they load on their heads and carry away for disposal. These workers service both private homes and public toilets. Remuneration, in the form of a small stipend from a local government or tips and occasional leftover food from homes is just enough to keep these “untouchables” alive.

With an MA in Sociology from Patna University in hand, Pathak found employment in a junior but serendipitous position. There he threw himself into unraveling complex social, economic, cultural, and spiritual challenges that had stymied contemporary public officials and even the great Gandhi himself. 


Pathak was a True Gandhian

Pathak advanced his mission of ending manual scavenging by walking alongside “untouchables” in an often playful manner. Photo: Sulabh International.

Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “Everyone must be his own scavenger.”  In Road to Freedom Pathak writes that the Mahatma had requested volunteers planning the 1901 National Congress Convention conference in Calcutta not to engage manual scavengers. They deemed the notion impossible, leaving Gandhi alone to manage his own daily waste, a habit he had adopted during his 20 years working in South Africa.

Once he finished his university studies, Pathak was recruited by the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Committee to help prepare for the 1969 centenary of the leader’s birth. Appreciating the young man’s passion and focus, committee members challenged him to figure out how to embark on Gandhi’s dream of transforming the lives of the lowest caste Indians.  

Twentieth-century measures to protect the scheduled castes were outweighed by 4000 years of religion-infused tradition, workforce structure, and simple economics. To free a person from the work of emptying toilets barehanded and carrying away their neighbors’ raw excreta on their heads seemed impossible! How would society function without such essential services? 

Gandhi’s concept of sanitation had always extended beyond the home. While impressed by Western sanitation practices, Gandhi understood the local dynamics, inspected latrines, and even suggested diverting urine for reuse in agriculture. But beyond this, he didn’t take sanitation management further.

In contrast, Pathak applied himself to modernizing Indian toilet practices and sanitary solutions from the get-go. The sewered sanitation the British had introduced in urban areas was prohibitively expensive. The septic systems in rural areas relied on unsustainable amounts of water and polluted supplies in aquifers. 

In time, Pathak realized that liberating manual scavengers from their toilet toils required a revolution in the way Indians built and used toilets. 


Justice is Entwined with Technology 

Two goals – one socio-legal and the other technical and operational – would have to be undertaken simultaneously. Raising the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of toilet cleaners depended on progress toward more hygienic and affordable sanitation systems for households, villages, and cities. Justice and technology were entwined.

In his 2013 essay “Sociology of Sanitation,” Pathak reflected on the tools at his disposal. The first was participant observation. “It was taught to us,” he wrote, “that if somebody wants to work for the cause of a community, then first and foremost one had to build rapport…to know their attitudes, their lifestyle, their behaviour and to partake food, etc. with them.”

Sociology also teaches the need for “tools that test the hypothesis created for the research.”  Thus the second essential tool was technology: a toilet that “could replace the bucket or dry toilets cleaned by human scavengers.” Since there had been scant work done on toilets, Pathak concluded that “it is very important for us to know that [the] application of the mind is more important than knowledge. Knowledge can be borrowed but we have to apply our mind in such a way that there is a breakthrough.” Toilet criteria included affordability, adaptability to various climates and pit emptying that would take place only once the contents were no longer excreta but had been transformed into rich, usable soil. 

A third tool was purposeful methodology. Pathak not only embarked on developing a working toilet – the Sulabh Shauchalaya, or “easy toilet” –  but saw the need for an organization to “work as a catalytic agency amongst the Government, and the beneficiaries.”  Pathak describes the role of each in planning, implementation, and financing and highlights the growing responsibilities of non-governmental organizations.

A final tool of non-violent implementation was borrowed from Gandhi and applied with care and creativity. “I took the help of the upper caste people of the society and persuaded them to sit with these human scavengers and to dine with them.” He wrote, “I did not agitate against the social order of the upper caste people. I did not tear or burn books of Vedas, Purans, Manusmriti or other scriptures. I did not say a single word against anybody.”

Using these instruments, Pathak designed the program first implemented in Bihar in the decade 1974-84. Untouchable workers engaged in manual scavenging were known as Bhangis in that region. As he wrote in Road to Freedom, they were “loaded with their so-called faith-oriented and sacred values…and, engaged in this sub-human job, believed they were destined to do it.”  He wondered about conflicts between lower caste people freed from dangerous work and those still forced to do it. He knew that the “gap between expectations and achievements” could cause frustration for all parties. The breaking of traditional bondages would create a new set of social relations.  And “in the case of liberation,. .. the scavengers will be out of a job.”  He concluded that “it is not only the manifestation of an agency preparing and launching the scheme and the scavengers accepting the scheme. It is a multilateral and multi-dimensional process, requiring reciprocatory behaviours not only from the Bhangis, voluntary and official agencies but also from the members of the community“ at large. They had to do away with the old system but faced the challenge of changing everyone’s toilets all at once. 

In time, the new toilet — capable of transforming raw excreta into a substance that was not associated with filth or impurity — was ready. The pour-flush system required a liter or so of water to clean the user and the squatting pan. A fraction of the water remained in a trap, forming a seal to prevent odors and flies from entering the pit. Having two round pits allowed one to be sealed off when full and left to compost, while the other was in service. 

In 1970, Pathak founded Sulabh Shauchalaya Sansthan, the precursor to today’s Sulabh International. The new organization collaborated with local governments to deploy Sulabh Shauchalaya in households of two small towns in Bihar.  As the toilets appeared in homes and the service of manual scavengers was no longer needed, Pathak mentored them on two fronts: skills training and cross-caste community building. Their preparation for jobs sweeping streets and managing solid waste went hand in hand with their visits to Hindu temples they had once been forbidden to enter.  

This merger of social action with toilet building, which is colorfully documented in Road to Freedom, proved essential to the liberation of scavengers. Through iteration, field-testing, collaboration, compassion, and perseverance, Pathak had honed his approach. Eventually, he succeeded where others had failed, and many continue to do so. Those working in the sanitation sector would do well to heed the lessons of Pathak as a young man.

Dual-pit pour-flush toilets can be adapted for any soils. Sulabh has built 16,000 dual-pit pour-flush toilets for Indian households. Photo: Sulabh International. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sulabh’s Delhi Campus is a Model for Practitioners Elsewhere

The fundamental values laid down by the young Pathak and amplified throughout his life are on view at Sulabh International headquarters in Delhi. It is a pleasant and productive place where former untouchables rub elbows with presidents, scientists, and poets. Nothing better exhibits the organization’s commitment to applied science buttressed by devotion to human rights, learning, economic development, and spiritual growth.

Here workers test toilet components made of metal, plastic, and fired brick and build prototype privacy shelters of concrete blocks, mud brick, wood, or reeds. An outdoor exhibit of two-pit pour-flush Sulabh Sauchaulayas allows visitors to walk among dozens of models. Each is sized for ten users to serve the average household. Squat pans sit atop a concrete slab under which is a short sloping pipe designed to carry urine and feces into one of two pits. Pits constructed of various materials may be cylindrical or square. When one pit fills up after approximately a year, the flow can be switched to the empty pit by opening a valve. By the time the second pit fills, the first pit is ready for emptying. This real-life catalog of toilets offers choices at various price points. Privacy shelters are built of materials ranging from straw and thatch to tiled masonry while pits exhibit a variety of materials appropriate for the quality of various soils and the size of different budgets.

Along a wall of the Sulab International compound is a facility that treats wastewater from a large public toilet complex that serves the people in the busy Delhi neighborhood beyond it. This plant produces methane to light the campus and fuel the stoves that produce food for staff, students, trainees, researchers, and visitors.  

In a large laboratory with beakers, test tubes and samples of water, soil, and excreta, researchers monitor the effectiveness of sanitation solutions appropriate for various geographies and climates. The Sulabh Toilet Museum stands nearby with its surprising collection of toilet technologies from all over the world. Attractive pools of blooming plants and useful reeds treat greywater produced on-site.

Around the campus and spilling into neighborhood streets are primary and secondary schools where children of former scavengers learn alongside neighborhood kids. Various nearby workshops offer adults training for more than a dozen fields ranging from public health to operating a beauty parlor or a food cart.

Suhlab International’s mission is the transition from manual scavenging to toilets that produce compost.

The Work of Sulabh International Continues

In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the current Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. To enshrine Gandhi’s concept of cleanliness as national policy, Modi called on Pathak and Sulabh International. Teams across the nation are helping leverage the provision of toilets, solid and liquid waste disposal systems, and safe drinking water for every family, and to maintain public and private spaces.  

Sulabh International has trained teams in other countries to build and maintain household and public toilet facilities. After working many years in Afghanistan and Bhutan, the organization is replicating and adapting its approach to meet the needs of developing nations in Africa and Asia. Sulabh now deploys 60,000 workers and volunteers in India and beyond.

Today more than 20 million Indians use toilets designed and built by Sulabh International. Over a million and a half household toilets are supplemented by 32,000 school toilets and 10,000 public toilets. Since the first biogas treatment plants were built in the 1980s, more than 200 more have been built to recycle methane for cooking, light, and the production of electricity. Over ten thousand former manual scavengers have been retrained and are now employed in a variety of jobs throughout the country.

In academic circles Pathak might refer to himself as a sociologist – he did indeed receive a doctorate in sociology in 1989.  For everyone else, he simply called himself a social worker.  Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak passed away on August 15th, 2023 – India’s Independence Day. Pathak will be remembered as a social entrepreneur whose vision will continue to benefit the health of millions of humans and of Planet Earth. 


On Suhlab’s Delhi campus, a girl from a former scavenger family learns new skills for work at a beauty parlor. Photo: PHLUSH



Leave a Comment