Bindeshwar Pathak corporatised the Public toilet System in India but rarely used his power to eradicate discrimination faced by Manual scavengers

bindeshwar pathak

The founder of Sulabh International Dr Bindeshwar Pathak passed away in a hospital in Delhi a few days back. Dr Pathak was 80 years of age and was known as the ‘toilet man’ of India. He brought ‘revolution’ in the toilet system in India and brought the ‘concept’ of ‘paid toilet’ system in India. Sulabh International which claimed to ‘eradicate’ untouchability actually became the biggest beneficiary of the hypocrisy of a society which refuses to pay honorably to a community which is enslaved in continuing to work as manual scavengers who suffer in humiliation in all forms, socially, economically and culturally. They have been reduced to symbolism of all varieties of people right from Pathak to Narendra Modi.

While Sulabh’s pay and use toilet model has been a hugely successful business model that gave both Pathak and his organisation millions of rupees but unfortunately it could not become a model to emancipate the plight of the manual scavengers which he claimed to have inspired him to do this work so this cruel practice is eliminated and the community is liberated. Pathak said in an interview about what made him do this work.

‘ When I was young, one of the many rules I had to follow was about not touching certain people. One day, out of curiosity, I touched a lady scavenger. My grandmother saw me and was so scandalized at the “sin” I committed that she fed me cow-dung, sand, and Ganges water to purify my soul. Years later, I saw a young boy left to die in the rain after being gored by a bull. Nobody took him to the hospital because he was “untouchable.”

Those incidents made me challenge our system that rewards an honest day’s work – cleaning latrines – with scorn and humiliation. I joined the Bihar Gandhi Birth Centenary Celebration Committee in 1968 because I wanted what Gandhi himself wanted – to bring back the rights and dignity of the “untouchables.” One problem he had, though, was that no technology could yet replace the bucket latrines, which required scavengers for cleaning. That’s why I developed the Sulabh toilet, biogas digester, and other technologies.’

For a long, Bendeshwar Pathak and Sulabh used Gandhi ji’s thought of ‘Harijan’ for ‘eradicating’ manual scavenging. I rarely found him speaking about Dr Ambedkar and the emancipation of Dalits. His initiatives were important if used as a method to emancipate the Dalits but unfortunately it became the tool for his gaining wider publicity and brought huge profit to his organisation.

In the early 1990s, Sulabh International was gaining ground in Delhi and it started a centre at Palam Dabari Road. The toilet museum is really good and gives you the history of the toilets world over. It is important for us to understand those things but Pathak’s initial plan was to use the issue of manual scavengers and their liberation as the target to reach the power groups in Delhi. He knew well that it is easier to access the power politics of Delhi using Gandhi’s name. In Delhi, he made Dr Mulk Raj Anand, the famous author of ‘Untouchable’ as Patron. Dr Anand was an internationally known personality and passionate about eradication of manual scavenging. His idea was that once the latrine system is revolutionised through the flush toilet system, the manual scavenging would go. Pathak and his team used the symbols of his novel Untouchables. It was translated into Hindi and many street plays were organised in Delhi. On 2nd October, much publicised work was done in Delhi in which some of the top ‘intellectuals’ and bureaucrats were asked to adopt a family of manual scavengers on the Gandhi Jayanti Day. I am sure none of the dignitaries ever invited any person from the manual scavenging community to their home. This so-called adoption of the families of manual scavengers at Dr Pathak’s programme on October 2nd was another hogwash in the memory of Gandhi ji. The fact is that Dr Pathak was using different methods to get access to power and gain legitimacy to his corporatisation process. The legitimacy would only come when he would claim that he was not doing business but ‘social reform’ was top of his agenda though any one can vouch how many Dalits were heading his funds, projects and even the Sulabh Shauchalayas in the prime locations of our cities. His media team was powerful, well connected and Gandhi Jayanti day was always used as day of emancipation of the Manual scavengers.
Slowly, reaching the power and getting bigger contracts from the government to build and maintain Sulabh Shauchalayas in the prime location of the cities became the sole agenda. Toilet system became commercialised. They knew well that people needed a public utility system near the railways, bus stations etc and the government wanted to get rid of maintaining them hence Sulabh came for the bigger rescue. Just imagine the Old Delhi Railway Station where a public toilet system gives you access at Rs 5 or Rs 10/- for using it. IN Day if 5000 people use it, the amount of money from just one place. Slowly, Sulabh became all mighty, powerful. It has already attracted senior civil servants to be part of its structure. The money started flowing in. They started from Bihar but now they are all over the country. It was a pure monopoly of a system. Ofcourse, there were places where Sulabh was blacklisted in Delhi itself but then it had powerful access to the government and its ministers hence nothing happened to them.

Sulabh also gave awards to powerful personalities including various prime ministers. He started giving awards to the prime ministers. Chandrashekhar, Narsimharao, Man Mohan Singh and Narendra Modi became his ardent fans. Ofcourse, he was not comfortable with V P Singh.

Normally, Pathak rarely acknowledged Dr Ambedkar as he knew that Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s vision for the emancipation of the Dalits is not charities of the Savarnas but rights of the Dalits but off late, after the 1990s, VP Singh’s Mandal mantra made huge dent on the social monopoly of the caste elite that compelled even Pathak to speak about Dr Ambedkar though reluctantly. In an interview he said, that in India, untouchables require social acceptance. He aligned his work with the guidelines given by Dr. Ambedkar to understand whether untouchability has been eradicated or not. “When everybody will go to a temple to worship, when everybody will take bath in the same pond, everyone will draw water from the same well, and everybody will dine together. I fulfilled all these in two towns one of which is Alwar (Rajasthan).”

Sulabh has huge data base of the country but I am not sure whether Pathak Saheb ever heard of Safai Karmchari Andolan led by Baizwada Wilson who has been campaigning against untouchability and honorable rehabilitation of the Safai karmcharis. I rarely heard him speaking on the crisis of untouchability and what is the source of it. Whether they were victims of the brahmanical order or not ? In the last five years alone, over 347 people died cleaning the septic tanks or sewage lines. I rarely heard Bindeshwar Pathak and his Sulabh International raising any concern about this.

Frankly speaking, I would not have been asking these questions if Dr Pathak was a simple contractor of the sanitation work but when one claim that his idea to start Sulabh was the emancipation of the untouchables particularly those from the manual scavenging communities. What is the emancipatory model of the Sulabh Shauchalayas and how much it work with other Dalit Rights groups ?

Yes, I can say, this model can become a powerful tool to eradicate manual scavenging and rehabilitate the manual scavenging communities if the public toilets at prime locations of our cities are handed over to those who are engaged in manual scavenging. Let them enjoy the profit of these shauchalayas. Unfortunately, while the cleaners and workers of the Shauchalayas were mostly the unorganised workers of the manual scavenging communities, the managerial positions were always dominated by the brahmins from Bihar. Let all these organisations who claim to work for the emancipation of Dalits or give them dignity start cleaning their own self by providing proportional representation to Dalits in all the decision making bodies. Will Sulabh do it now if it claims to be an organsiation for the liberation of manual scavengers ? If not, then it is fine to continue with its business model and acquire all the public toilets of the country. Ofcourse, the monopoly of one organisation will never be a public good.

In all, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak will remain pioneer in commercialising the public toilet system and making people aware of the hygiene related to toilets but definitely he can not be termed as emancipator of the manual scavenging communities simply because his movement deviated more and more towards the commercial gains where community and individuals are merely symbols to be utlised during the public events and not more. He was a successful entrepreneur who used a social evil of discrimination faced by manual scavenger to promote his own agenda of corporatisation of public toilet system in India which helped the governments in abdicating its responsibility but could not stop manual scavenging and the discrimination faced by the community. Sadly, with more and more awards, Sulabh and Dr Pathak enjoyed the laurels of their ‘great’ ‘work’ without ever asking the government the basic question to rehabilitate honorably the people engaged in manual scavenging.

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Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at twitter @freetohumanity Email: [email protected]

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