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20 Million Indians Use Sulabh Today: Bindeshwar Pathak

Founder of Sulabh International, the company behind Sulabh Shauchalaya, Bindeshwar Pathak talks about his journey with Brij Pahwa. In this tell all interview, Mr. Pathak shares important incidents from his life which helped him initiate the idea of the famous Sulabh Shauchalayas and other efforts of societal importance

Every great person has a starting point. The point which turns the tables. What was that point in your life which led you into a life-seeking social responsibility?

I wanted to be a professor in the sociology department of the University of Patna. But luck would have it. So I joined a society- Bihar Gandhi Centenary celebration committee. It was formed to celebrate the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The anniversary was in the year 1969. I joined in 1968. There I was asked to fulfill the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi, to restore the human rights and dignity of untouchables.

Though I had a past. I told my General Secretary that I am a Brahmin by birth. When I touched an untouchable lady when I was young, my grandmother had made me drink cow urine and eat cow dung and she put a lot of Ganga jal on me in harsh winters. My General Secretary listened but didn’t agree and said that he saw the light in me. So he sent me to live in the colony of untouchables, Bettiah, Bihar for 3 months. From there, my journey started.

How was your experience of being a Brahmin and living in the society of untouchables when social discrimination of the community was still predominant?

Personally, I had no problem. But my father was sad. Brahmins were against me.

I was married early at the age of 22. My father-in-law was a rich doctor and he became angry with my step. One day he told me that he didn’t want to see my face anymore. He told me had I not have been a Brahmin, he would have made his daughter marry someone else. I told him that I had to turn the pages of the history of India, to rescue the untouchables, to fulfill the dream of Mahatma Gandhi and hence I would continue with my journey.

Today the name Sulabh synchronises with most public toilets in India. The brand has become really famous. How did the initiative, Sulabh, start?

Sulabh shauchalayas are built both for public purposes and for private use at homes. For the private toilet, I had to invent the technology by myself. Had I not invented the technology, even today there wouldn’t have been any chance of preventing manual scavenging and also stopping open defecation. In 1974, the Patna corporation asked me to create toilets on their land. They also provided the construction money. The only condition was that they wouldn’t give the money for maintenance, so we decided to charge the money from the users. So there were jokes in Patna that you will have to pay to even shit. However, the bright side was that on the first day, 500 people used the toilets. From there the Sulabh revolution started. Today, about 20 million people use 9000 public toilets throughout India. We have created the biggest toilet in the world in Maharashtra which is used by 2 lakh people daily.

Is the present government more supportive of your initiatives since it has been the force behind the Swachh Bharat mission? Is it different from the previous governments?

Most governments have helped me in the past. This particular government though has been the best when it comes to promoting toilets. I have seen no prime minister give this much importance to sanitation. He spoke about toilets from the red fort, so I give the credit to him. The subject is at the core of his heart. He also talked to the President of America about toilets.

You are also the brand ambassador of Swachh Rail mission. The convenience systems in railways is not up to the mark. What are you doing to upgrade the status quo?

As the brand ambassador, I had suggested something. Now, the railway board has taken that into account and has passed a circular to all the general managers and DRMs throughout the country to work with Sulabh. Now we are working with the railways. We have started the Swachh initiative in various places.

What next for Sulabh?

We have recently found a solution to eradicate arsenic in water and have started using that. 5 plants in west Bengal are working. One is working in Bihar. The problem of arsenic in water in prevalent in several states. Our aim is to rectify the problem. We haven’t taken any donation which is kind of a constraint.

What next for you?

I believe in destiny. I want to go from village to village and fulfill the dream of Mahatma and PM Modi that we have to make this country clean and livable. Sanitation has linkages to health and development.

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