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How the invention of a simple pit latrine changed the lives of millions in India

Scavenging is the practice of manual cleaning of human excreta from service/ dry latrines. The scavengers had to crawl into the dry latrines and collect the human excreta with their bare hands, carry it as head-load in a container to dispose it off. Scavenging was limited to women mostly.

They are invariably from the lower-caste, “untouchable” (Dalit) community. Usha who was liberated from scavenging in 2003 and till today has to literally pinch herself every time she steps out of her house without having to wear a bell around her neck like her mother did, as a way of identifying her as an untouchable because she was a toilet cleaner. She has to pinch herself because only a decade ago she wasn’t allowed to draw water from a well, wasn’t allowed to worship in a Hindu temple, wasn’t allowed to touch another person who wasn’t an untouchable like herself, wasn’t allowed to eat with the rest in society and had to live in the outskirts of towns because they were not ‘humanly equal’ to live with others.

The story of Usha is the same as that of more than a million other scavengers that have been liberated thanks to the ingenious and sacrificing work of Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, a man these women consider as their God. My interest in the Sulabh Movement begun last year after I attended the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) forum in Mumbai and three weeks ago I had the divine privilege of visiting the foundation including Alwar and Tonk colonies where the movement begun from.

After having read about Dr Pathak, I have to say I was weary about meeting him in person largely because of the many achievements under his belt both for humanity and in the sanitation sector. I mean honestly, do you extend your hand or touch someone’s feet who in spite of his high society standing in the Indian caste system, decided to throw all the privileges and prestige that comes with it and spends three months with an untouchable family eating and sleeping in the colony, manually cleaned toilets, sold his wife’s golden ornaments to help build his first twin pit latrine and still became one of the most respected people in India?

I have to say though with all his achievements and successes, Dr Pathak is one of the humblest, down to earth and simplest person I have met in my 30 odd years on this earth. I spent nearly three weeks with the Sulabh family including Dr Pathak himself, my memories are endless but my fondest ones are when we went to Alwar and the second one was when we went to Bhopal. The Alwar colony visit was memorable for me because after touring the ”Nai Disha” (a new paradigm), one of a number of centers that Dr Pathak set up after the women stopped cleaning toilets, I had the opportunity of having lunch with former women who once cleaned toilets and the owners of the houses whose toilets they cleaned.

Believe it not, this was unthinkable just over ten years and it was considered bad luck to whomever came close to untouchables, ate with them and even touched them. Dr Pathak still vividly remembers a time during his youth when he was caught by his mother touching an untouchable and he was forced to drink cow urine, swallow cow dung and take a bath in the Ganges River for purification. After the hefty meal, we broke another taboo we took a walk to a nearby temple.

With heads held high, Dr Pathak walked side by side and as equals with the former human women scavengers to the temple, walked up the flight of stairs and entered it with dignity. My other memorable time was when we flew to Bhopal. You see, sometime in December last year, a community newspaper ran a story about a woman who left her husband because he didn’t have a toilet in his premises. The story landed on Dr Pathak’s ears and pledged to award Anita Narre a token of 10,000 US Dollars for her bravery. “When I learnt of the story it was like music to my ears. Why?

For starters it goes without saying that India has a huge challenge in eradicating open defecation and so for a newly wed to leave her husband’s home unaccompanied and to return her parents because of a toilet, he knew this was the start of something big,” he told me in an exclusive interview. Anita Narre explained that it took her only two days after moving in with her husband to reach the decision that unless her husband built a toilet, she would go back to her parents and not return until there was one. She narrated that on her first day she had to walk 2km away from her house to go and ease herself and vowed that she wouldn’t undergo that torture everyday unless something was done.

“I grew up in an environment that had toilets within the premises of the homestead. I confided with my husband about my concerns and when I saw nothing was being done about it, I took matters into my own hands,” she said. The Local Government Village Executive Officer, Ms Lalita Narre said that when she learnt that Anita had left her husband because of the lack of toilet facilities, she supported her and saw a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. She revealed that thanks to the bold move of Anita, in a space of two weeks, 95 out of the 150 households that previously didn’t have toilet had constructed toilets and the rest were underway.

Globally, 79 per cent of the urban populations use an improved sanitation facility, compared to 47 per cent of the rural population. In rural areas, 1.8 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, representing 72 per cent of the global total of those unserved.
A great deal of progress has been made in rural areas since 1990: 724 million rural dwellers have gained access to improved sanitation while the number of people unserved in urban areas has grown by 183 million (during a time of massive urban population growth).

Open defecation is defined as defecation in fields, forests, bushes, bodies of water or other open spaces. The majority of those practicing open defecation (949 million) live in rural areas. About 234 million fewer rural dwellers were practicing open defecation in 2010 than in 1990. Open defecation is practiced by 692 million people in Southern Asia. In the poorest twofifths of the population of this region, 4 out of 5 people practice open defecation. Official statistics in India say that there are still around 340,000 scavengers working in villages and small towns.

The UN aims to reduce by half the number of people without basic sanitation by 2015. I once told someone that sanitation is more than washing hands, it’s a human right, visiting the Sulabh Foundation and their activities made me see this in a much clearer picture. I tell everyone who cares to listen, if there is one person who honestly deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, it is Dr Pathak.


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