Bindeshwar Pathak, the man who pioneered the concept of public toilets, passes away
Pathak's mission was to build a cleaner India and empower the downtrodden. Pic: Wikipedia

Bindeshwar Pathak, the man who pioneered the concept of public toilets, passes away

Known as 'Toilet Man of India', he founded Sulabh International in 1970, which became synonymous with public toilets and activism against open defecation. His pioneering work in the field made him much ahead of his time

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Long before the Swachch Bharat Mission had made toilets a part of public discourse, Bindeshwar Pathak pioneered the concept of public toilets in India.

The activist and social worker, who came to be known as the 'Toilet Man of India' continued with his good work, even though he was often ridiculed by people for the work he was doing in the public sanitation space. Pathak famously recalled once how his father-in-law felt that his daughter's life has been ruined as he cannot tell anyone what his son-in-law did for a living. For he was the one who founded Sulabh in 1970 and it became synonymous with public toilets and activism against open defecation in no time.

Pathak, 80, died today after a cardiac arrest at AIIMS Delhi soon after unfurling the national flag on Independence Day.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid rich tributes to Pathak, describing his death as a profound loss to the nation.

"He was a visionary who worked extensively for societal progress and empowering the downtrodden," the PM said, noting it was Pathak's mission to build a cleaner India. Modi said Pathak provided support to the Swachh Bharat Mission and his passion towards cleanliness was always visible during their conversations. Pathak had also published a book on Modi called 'The Making of a Legend' in 2017.

"His work will continue to inspire several people. My deepest condolences to his family and loved ones during this difficult time. Om Shanti," he said.

Pathak's journey

This social worker, who was sometimes called by many as 'Sanitation Santa Claus', was born in a Brahmin family in Rampur Baghel village in Vaishali district of Bihar and is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.

After college, he did some odd jobs and later joined the Bhangi-Mukti (scavengers' liberation) cell of the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebrations Committee in 1968. Here, he was intimately exposed to the problems of scavengers in India. He found his calling when he travelled the country and stayed with manual scavengers as part of his PhD thesis.

He established the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation in 1970, combining technical innovation with humanitarian principles. The organisation works to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management and social reforms through education.

Innovation in sanitation

Designs pioneered by Pathak three decades ago to create biogas by linking Sulabh toilets to fermentation plants, has now become a byword for sanitation in developing countries all over the world.

One of the distinctive features of Pathak's project lies in the fact that besides producing odour-free bio-gas, it also releases clean water rich in phosphorus and other ingredients which are important constituents of organic manure. His sanitation movement ensures cleanliness and prevents greenhouse gas emission. This technology is now being extended to South Africa to bring these facilities to rural communities.

Awards galore

A Padma Bhishan awardee, Pathak is also the recipient of the Energy Globe Award, the Dubai International Award for Best Practices, the Stockholm Water Prize, the Legend of Planet award from the French senate in Paris, among others.

"You are helping the poor," lauded Pope John Paul II while honouring Dr Pathak with the International St Francis Prize for the Environment, in 1992. In 2014, he was honoured by Sardar Patel International Award for Excellence in the field of Social Development.

In April 2016, Bill De Blasio, New York City mayor, declared April 14, 2016 as Bindeshwar Pathak Day.

1974: Landmark year for history of sanitation

The year 1974 is a landmark in the history of sanitation when the system of operating and maintaining community toilets with bathing, laundry and urinal facilities (popularly known as Sulabh Shauchalaya Complex) with attendants service round-the-clock was initiated on the pay-and-use basis in Patna.

Now Sulabh is operating and maintaining toilets at railway stations and temple towns across the country. It has more than 9,000 community public complexes in India present in 1,600 towns. These complexes have electricity and 24-hour water supply. The complexes have separate enclosures for men and women. The users are charged nominal sum for using toilets and bath facilities.

Some of the Sulabh complexes are also provided with bath with shower facility, cloak-rooms, telephone and primary healthcare. These complexes have been widely welcomed both by the people and the authorities due to their cleanliness and good management. Pay-and-use system ensures self-sustainability without any burden on public exchequer or local bodies. The complexes have also improved the living environment considerably.

Sulabh reported a turnover of ₹490 crore in the fiscal 2020.

Supporting social causes

Not just toilets, Sulabh has set up a number of vocational training institutes. Here, liberated scavengers, their sons and daughters and persons from other weaker sections of society are given training in various vocations like computer technology, typing and shorth and, electrical trade, woodcraft, leather craft, diesel and petrol engineering, cutting and tailoring, cane furniture making, masonry work, motor driving.

The purpose of imparting vocational training to them is to give them new means of livelihood, alleviate poverty and bring them into the mainstream of society.

From setting up an English medium School in Delhi for children of manual scavengers to providing financial assistance to the abandoned widows in Vrindavan or establish a museum of toilets in the national capital, Pathak and his Sulabh have always worked towards the upliftment of the marginalised.

Pathak once said he thought of setting up a museum of toilets after visiting Madam Tussauds. The museum is often listed among one of the weirdest museums around the world, but chronicles his journey that started in 1970s, when he decided to follow the path of Mahatma Gandhi on sanitation and to uplift the people in the lowest strata of society.

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