India’s ‘Toilet Man’ Bindeshwar Pathak, who changed country’s sanitation system for ever, dies
Pathak’s determination to make clean sanitation available to all Indians also proved to be a strong social move that blurred class and caste lines.
Bindeshwar Pathak (1943-2023) (Photo by PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/GettyImages)
SIX years ago, it was in the month of August that a film by Bollywood actors Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar was released titled ‘Toilet Ek Prem Katha’ which carried the message of improving sanitation across India.
But Kumar had a real-life version in Bindeshwar Pathak, who died from cardiac arrest on August 15, when India was celebrating its 77th Independence Day, at the age of 80.
Prime minister Narendra Modi has time and again emphasised on making India a country where sanitation standards are high and Pathak, the real-life ‘Toilet Man’ who had devoted his life and energy in making the country a cleaner place by setting up public toilets and helping Indians from across social ranks to have access to clean sanitation, had made a substantial contribution towards realising the mission.
For Pathak, however, the journey was not easy. A noted social entrepreneur who founded Sulabh International, an Indian NGO which promotes among others, environmental sanitation, human rights, non-conventional sources of energy and waste management, Pathak was born in a Brahmin family in the eastern state of Bihar and his mission had earned him derision from his close ones.
The ‘Toilet Man’ name horrified Pathak’s family and fellow Brahmins and the community, considered the top-placed one in the Indian social hierarchy, was irked by his obsession with making public toilets since many considered toilets as an unclean place. But Pathak’s determination saw him blurring the caste and class lines.
Pathak understood the mission he had to accomplish after seeing the plight of manual scavengers, who had to remove human waste from “dry” toilets that had no water or flush. He even spent days with scavenger families in the late 1960s while he was doing doctoral research.
He was aghast to see people doing such an inhuman job and vowed to end the practice by building public and private toilets.
In 1970, Pathak founded Sulabh International, and in 1973, it made the first public toilet in the city of Arrah in his home state to prove that a twin-pit, pour-flush toilet system was possible.
The success saw Sulabh building nearly 1.3 household toilets and more than 10,000 public ones.
Besides, the organisation also made several thousands of toilet complexes for the urban poor in slum areas and crowded public areas. These featured not only toilets but also bathing zones and space for people to do laundry.
Users have to pay a nominal fee to use the complexes, some of which also offer cloakrooms, telephones and basic medical care. Millions of Indians are estimated to use them daily.
It’s not just making the toilets that concluded the mission. Pathak’s toilet designs for producing biogas are also being followed now in many underdeveloped countries.
“The results of Dr Pathak’s endeavours constitute one of the most amazing examples of how one person can impact the wellbeing of millions,” the Stockholm water prize nominating committee said in its citation in 2009.
The death of Pathak, a sociology graduate, at Delhi’s elite All India Institute for Medical Sciences was mourned in all quarters. Modi said on X, formerly called Twitter, that Pathak’s death was “a profound loss” for the nation.
“He was a visionary who worked extensively for societal progress and empowering the downtrodden,” he said, adding that Pathak had “made it his mission to build a cleaner India”.
Palaniappan Chidambaram, a former finance minister of India and a leader of the opposition Indian National Congress who knew Pathak personally, described him as someone who “toiled all his life to introduce sanitation to the people of India” and paid tribute to “his farsightedness and missionary work in the field of sanitation”, The Guardian reported.