The death of Bindeshwar Pathak this month has highlighted the enormous change he brought in an on-going fight to bring India’s sanitation habits into the current century. His quest began at around the age of seven, although no-one is quite sure exactly when he risked life and limb, not to mention his entire social status for life, on a dare. He touched the sari of a thin, little woman who came to his family’s house every morning, through the back door. What he expected to happen, he wasn’t sure, but family tradition said it most certainly be dire. However, initially nothing did happen. No bolt of lightning, and no instant death.
Bindeshwar had noticed his grandmother sprinkling holy Ganga water over the floor where the woman had walked and, when he asked why, he was told she had polluted it.
Touching her sari set of a fire-storm in the house, when they found out. They called in the local pandit, a Hindu scholar learned in Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy and religion. The pandit said Bindeshwar must be banished. His mother intervened to prevent that punishment, but the one demanded by the pandit was almost as bad. Bindeshwar had to plunge into cold Ganga water and, much worse, he had to drink a mixture of milk, ghee, curd, cow urine and cow dung to purify himself. His grandmother mixed it up fiercely, and forced it down him. At the time, nobody explained why this disgusting punishment was necessary, and it wasn’t until much later that he discovered the reason.
India’s caste system (Varna) has four (4) main classes: the Brahmins (priestly people), the Kshatriyas (rulers, administrators and warriors; also called Rajanyas), the Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, tradesmen and farmers), and the Shudras (labouring classes).
The Varna categorisation implicitly includes a fifth element, those deemed to be entirely outside its scope, such as tribal people and the untouchables. There are also thousands of Jatis: Jati means “birth”, but the number of distinctions within that definition are somewhat vague.
The part that is relevant to Bindeshwar’s story is the lowest level of caste, the untouchables. Although the term “untouchable” was banned by Indian law in 1950, the concept is alive and well in Indian society today. The thin little woman who came through Bindeshwar’s back door every morning was an “untouchable”. She made her living by collecting “night soil” from houses, cleaning it out from buckets and dry-pit toilets, mostly by hand. She then carried it on her head in baskets to some far place. Most Indian houses had no toilets and, once Bindeshwar realised what was going on, he was horrified and began his life’s work; an obsession with sanitation.
In 1970 he founded an organization, Sulabh Shauchalaya, which means “accessible toilet”. The key to everything was his cheap pour-flush toilet, designed in 1969, which could be flushed with only one liter of water. Black, or grey, water leached from it into the soil. The dry solids gradually degraded into an odourless mulch that could fertilise fields.
Perhaps I should add here that Indian sanitation up to Bindeshwar was the reason Indian protocol was to always shake hands with the left hand………………..
In 1973, a local town ordered two of his toilets. By 2020, he had sold 110 million and the public toilets he introduced in 1974 were accommodating 20 million Indians a day.
He went further.
He worked to raise the untouchables by establishing centers for women where, in identical pale-blue saris, they could learn to read, write, open bank accounts, and could train as embroiderers and candle-makers. By his estimates, he has liberated 200,000 women.
The current Indian Prime Minister was quoted as saying that toilets might be more important than temples.
It is debatable whether Bindeshwar’s contribution to Indian society might even be greater than Gandhi’s.