Nagrik Dialogue

Sulabh 50 – not out!

Dr Sutirtha Sahariah | Head of Communications, Sulabh International 

Sulabh International, that has been in the forefront of one of the world’s largest sanitation movement, completes 50 years.

Over the last five years, significant focus and resources have been directed globally to tackle the vital human problems of lack of sanitation, safe drinking water and wash services.  The UN sustainable development goals give priority to these issues and acknowledge that the lack of these basic facilities not only have a severe health outcome, but it is also about poverty, violation of human rights and gender inequality.  Globally, it is estimated that there are 2.3 billion people who still lack access to basic sanitation services, but 70% of those are in rural areas. There are almost 900 million people who still practice open defecation and of those people who practice open defecation, about 90% of them live in rural areas. This is also concentrated in two main regions in central Asia, southern Asia, as well as sub-Saharan Africa.  SDG goal 6 and target 6.2 seeks to achieve adequate and equitable sanitation hygiene for all, and there’s also a focus on ending open defecation and the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.

Bindeshwar Pathak, founder Sulabh International

India is one of the large economies that has made a significant progress in achieving open defecation free (ODF) goals.  Five years back, it was estimated that over 600 million people in India did not have access to toilets. In 2014, prime minister, Narendra Modi made sanitation one of the priority policy of his government and launched an ambitions Swachh Bharat Campaign. Over the last five years, under the programme, India has built over 100 million toilets — though it is widely acknowledged that much more still needs to be done to change people’s behaviour in adopting healthy sanitation practices.

Sulabh International, which was founded in 1970 by Bindeshwar Pathak– recognised globally as a sanitation pioneer –   played a pivotal role in laying the foundation for a sanitation movement – decades before the governments and development agencies woke up the cause in recent years.

Pathak’s foray into sanitation was in response to tackle the deep-rooted discrimination, abuse and stigma faced by a community of people – known as manual scavengers – who cleaned dry latrines manually and were labelled as “untouchables”.  

1968, whilst working as a volunteer for a committee set up to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s centenary celebrations, Pathak witnessed first-hand the sufferings of the community in the state of Bihar. He lived with the community and experienced first-hand the trauma, pain the indignity the inhuman job of cleaning dry latrines entailed.

Pathak saw that manual scavengers suffered from acute stress and health disorders. Since they were treated as untouchables, people from other castes usually didn’t touch them – and if they skipped work or made mistakes they were beaten and sometimes even pelted with stones. 

Strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of peace, equality and non-violence, Pathak took a resolution to free them from the shackles of modern-day slavery and dedicated his life for this cause. He developed a sustainable technology known as a two-pit pour flush toilet, which replaced the bucket toilets that had to be manually cleaned. The objective was to bring an end to this inhuman practice of cleaning night soil manually – this was the beginning of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement. 

In the last five decades Pathak’s movement liberated over 200000 manual scavengers from the inhuman occupation of manual cleaning of dry latrines and economically empowered them through skill development programmes.  

The toilet technology that Pathak developed has been installed to build over 1.5 million households and over 9500 public toilets, which are used by scores of people across India. One of remarkable success of this intervention has been the adoption a community-based behaviour change approach by creating awareness and demand for sanitation and hygiene in rural India. It has converted dry latrines into two-pit pour flush latrines in 1749 towns worked with women – mainly mothers – to achieve total sanitation by making them the agents of change. Its’ work has had a remarkable outcome in reducing diarrheal disease, mortality and morbidity among children.

Sulabh has also built 19603 toilets blocks covering 6241 schools across India. Its school intervention programmes are designed to promote girls right to education and this has resulted in a remarkable improvement in school enrolment and attendance of girls.

In 2012, Sulabh stepped in (at the behest of India’s Supreme Court) to provide care services for the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi, who were shunned by their families and were impoverished and neglected. Sulabh’s intervention transformed the living conditions of the widows bringing them security, solace and joy during their old age.

Sulabh is committed to work on sustainable solutions to make sanitation and water accessible to all and to contribute towards implementing SDG goals.  To that effect, since 2014, Sulabh has been working towards providing clean contamination free water accessible and affordable to India’s poorest communities.  Subsequently, it has introduced a pro poor system to make drinking water affordable at 1 rupee/litre. A process was developed to produce drinking water of appropriate quality from the surface water in arsenic affected areas of West Bengal and Bihar. The objective was to create a decentralized people friendly approach aimed at empowering communities so that the villagers, with training, can run the plant effectively.

 Pathak, the founder of Sulabh says, “change in the society is possible if we ourselves become the agent of change. We need collective action of everyone to reform the unjust practices of our society and work for prosperity of all communities where in the world they live.

Sulabh’s work across India has made a critical difference in the lives of millions of severely disadvantaged poor who couldn’t afford toilets. Pathak’s vision and ethos have intrinsically contributed to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. His actions aimed at rehabilitating manual scavengers, resorting their dignity by providing alternative employment through skill development presents an inspiring example of promoting peace, tolerance and empowerment by a non-violent means.  The government of India awarded Sulabh International (for 2016) the Gandhi Peace Prize for its contribution in improving the sanitation situation in India for its role in the emancipation of manual scavengers.  Pathak has number of national and international laurels to his credit including Padma Bhushan (1991) and the Stockholm Water Prize (2009).

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