Dr Bindeshwar Pathak: the man who revolutionised sanitation in India

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, noted social reformer and founder of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, championed the cause of sanitation in India by building over 10,000 public toilets across the country.

    • Social Work
    • Sanitation in India, Sulabh International, Toilet Man

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, noted social reformer and founder of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, championed the cause of sanitation in India by building over 10,000 public toilets and 1.3 million household toilets across the country.

Decades before the Swachh Bharat campaign was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, Dr Pathak poured his life and energy into making India a cleaner place by building public toilets and enabling Indians from across the social spectrum to have access to clean sanitation.

Pathak’s humanistic actions have changed the lives of thousands of men, women and children in India, who are able to live a life of dignity. Pathak says, ‘God helps people to help others. Change in society is possible if we ourselves become the agent of change. We need the collective action of everyone to reform the unjust practices of our society.’

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, “I am the son of the son of Mahatma Gandhi but Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is the son of his soul. If we were to go to meet M.K. Gandhi, he would first greet Dr.Pathak for the noble work that he is doing and then meet me.”

Early Life

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak was born in a Brahmin family at Rampur Baghel village of district Vaishali, Bihar. His mother was Yogmaya Devi and his father was Ramakant Pathak – a respected member of the community.

Pathak was close to his mother and was strongly influenced by her. Pathak says, ‘my mother always taught me to help others. She never turned anyone away who came for help. From her, I learned to give without expecting anything in return. It is said a man is not born for himself but for others.’ Pathak ingrained these values early on in life. Honesty and integrity have been his guiding principle throughout his life and career. Sulabh International, the prestigious organisation that he founded was built through enterprise and tenacity embedded on those values.

Both his parents were, however, firm in the belief that education alone would help the family get out of difficulty. Pathak’s grandfather was an astrologer. Pathak says, ‘with time and experience, I have learned to respect the teachings of my parents and maternal grandfather. They gave me a life of love and compassion beyond my dreams.’

Pathak spent all his childhood and adolescent years in the village where he completed his school education. He later moved to the state capital Patna and enrolled in B.N. College from there he graduated in sociology.

After completing his studies, he worked as a teacher for a while before joining the Gandhi Centenary Committee in Patna as a volunteer.

By the time Pathak completed his advance degrees including a doctorate, he was married and even had children.

Mission Sanitation

As a child, Pathak had often noticed his grandmother treating women who came to clean dry latrine with discrimination. They entered through back door as they were considered impure. And, once they left she she would sprinkle Ganga water on the ground thinking it would purify the house. Once Pathak touched an ‘untouchable’ woman out of curiosity in front of his grandmother. The consequences were severe: he was made to eat cow dung and urine, bathed in Ganga water in a wintry morning in order to cleanse and purify him. This was the level of superstition and discrimination that prevailed in rural India against untouchables.

His childhood memories came alive when he was in a town called Betiah in Bihar. Here, he saw the magnitude of the problems first hand: the community of manual scavengers – also known as untouchables – were brutally treated and almost condemned to live an inhuman life. One incident, in particular, left a lasting impression:

Pathak says, ‘One day, whilst working there I witnessed a harrowing incident. I saw a bull attacking a boy in a redshirt. When people rushed to save him, somebody yelled that he was untouchable. The crowd instantly abandoned him and left him to die.’ Pathak adds, ‘this tragic and unjust incident had shaken my conscience to the core. That day, I took a vow to fulfil the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi, which is to fight for the rights of untouchables but also to champion the cause of human dignity and equality in my country and around the world. This became my mission.‘

In 1968, troubled by pathetic conditions of the untouchables, and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy and teachings, Pathak came up with a technology that could replace dry latrines. He hoped that this technology would eventually bring an end to the problem of cleaning bucket toilets by the community of untouchables in India.

‘My idea was not just to provide a solution but to liberate the society that remained imprisoned in the formulaic traditions. I was determined to restore the dignity of manual scavengers that they were deprived of,’ says Pathak. He adds, ‘for these women, their freedom, voice and basic human rights were forfeited the moment they were born as they were perceived to belong to the lowest stratum of India’s caste-based society. By virtue of their birth, they worked as manual scavengers, cleaned dry latrines and faced severe social discrimination.’

Pathak was convinced that to liberate manual scavengers of their inhuman occupation every household had to have a proper toilet. In those days in Indian villages, most households simply didn’t have a toilet. Households that had a toilet were dry latrines which had to be manually cleaned by the “untouchables.”

Open defecation was a common phenomenon. Women were the worst sufferers. They had to go out for defecation in the cover of the dark – early morning or after sunset – and hence ran a very high risk of being exposed to crime, snake bites and even animal attacks. Lack of toilets exposed children to diarrhoeal diseases and scores died before attaining the age of five. The concept of public toilets was non-existent.

Despite these huge social challenges, Pathak’s project was initially a non-starter and got entangled in perennial bureaucratic processes. Pathak was undeterred.

‘I was in need of funds, I sold a piece of land in my village and my wife’s ornaments and even borrowed money from friends to run the organization. This period of my life was very difficult’, Pathak recalls.

‘At times I even contemplated suicide. Since I had no money, I slept on railway platforms and often skipped meals. For long, there was no sight of any work. I was going through a miserable phase and was on the verge of a breakdown.’

But during this phase of the struggle, Pathak received an important piece of advice: in 1971, one civil servant who had reviewed Pathak’s file pending with the government for approval of funds was impressed by his noble cause and the massive impact that it was likely to create in resolving India’s sanitation problems. He advised that instead of asking for grants, Sulabh should take money for implementing projects and, from the savings run the organisation. This way the organisation would be sustainable and that way it would be more likely to awarded government contracts.

In 1973, Pathak persuaded a member of Bihar Legislative Assembly (MLA) to write a letter to the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, about the situation and liberation of scavengers, requesting her to pay personal attention to the problem. Within a fortnight he received a reply from Mrs Gandhi which stated that she was writing to the chief minister to give his personal attention to this matter.

Although the government took note of Mrs Gandhi’s letter and started to act upon it, the issue again got lost in the cobweb and red tape of bureaucracy. Thus the problem remained unsolved.

However, for Pathak, the moment of reckoning came in 1973, when an officer of Arrah municipality – a small town in Bihar – gave Pathak 500 rupees to construct two toilets for demonstration in its premises. The toilets impressed the authorities who sanctioned a project for its wider implementation. Pathak toiled hard going from door-to-door to motivate and educate the beneficiaries to get their bucket latrines converted into Sulabh toilets. The project was a runaway success. Pathak was invited to replicate the project in Buxar – and within a year Sulabh started working in the state capital, Patna.

In 1974, the Bihar Government sent a circular to all the local bodies to take the help of Sulabh in the conversion of bucket toilets into Sulabh two-pit pour-flush toilets designed by Pathak with a view to relieving the scavengers from the sub-human occupation of cleaning human excreta manually and carrying it as head load. The programme was then rolled throughout the state of Bihar. In the same year, Pathak introduced the system of maintenance of public toilets on a pay-and-use basis. At that time, it was a new concept in India but very soon it became popular all over the country. By 1980, 25000 people were using Sulabh public facilities in Patna alone. Such was the success of the programme that it soon received the attention of national and international press.

The New York Times, in a piece in 1980 hailed Dr. Pathak’s mission and described him as an “articulate advocate of the role of voluntary organisations in development.” The paper further added, “the major reason for success has been Pathak’s sociological and psychological genius – he knows how to translate ideas into action and get people to act.” The Washington Post in 1985 defined Pathak’s mission as “formidable”.


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