We stop our noses when we pass the areas around slums – the stench of human waste is overpowering and nauseating; we silently curse all those who sit by the tracks in cities like Mumbai, oblivious of the passers by or the commuters; but not for one moment do we stop to think that they have no choice. The very same people who need them do their manual work – and that means us — be it domestic work or other unskilled work, spare no thought for their plight .
These slum-dwellers are the solid vote-banks of the parties that make a beeline to them come election time. But how many of the so-called ‘leaders’ actually see their hovels for what they actually are – unhygienic, dingy and mosquito-infested dwellings, instead of seeing the number of votes each homestead is going to give them? Doesn’t the government have as much responsibility to build them toilets as they have to build schools and colleges and even malls?
My maid is one of them. She tells me that she gets up at 3.30 AM to go to the ‘jungle’ with other women. This they do to be able to come back before the menfolk go there. She then fetches water from some far off tap that trickles water and has a bath before leaving for work around 5.30 AM in order to reach her work place before 6.30 AM.
They have pay-and-use toilets, but she is too poor to afford the Rs.2 per head that is charged there.
Public sanitation is a serious social and environmental issue that seems to be getting the lowest priority in the government’s scheme of things. They spend more money in setting up parks and playgrounds, using up colossal quantities of water for their upkeep but completely ignore the needs of the slum-dwellers who have nowhere to even relive themselves, leave alone have enough water for bathing and washing purposes. Don’;t even mention drinking water. My maid carries home water in bottles and cans every day as do others. Every time I use the restrooms in a large hotel or office complex, I cringe, with guilt being the overriding emotion. If there is one area where the rich poor divide is stark, it is in the area of sanitation.
These are still better compared to the section of our society that scavenges for a living. We city dwellers who live in our cosy apartments with 1/2/3/4 toilets with all the amenitites and unlimited water supply have no idea that there are still lakhs of dry latrines which need to be cleaned manually by people. Imagine the denigration and humiliation of these men and women – mostly women – who carry the night soil on their heads. This is not a bygone scenario but one that still exists in many parts of the country.
One man thought about this several decades ago. Dr.Bindeshwar Pathak decided to give shape to the Mahatma’s dream of abolishing this abhorrent practice. From his determination was born the Sulabh Sanitation Movement with its unique low-cost, low water consumption pit toilets that have become synonymous today with public toilets. Like he says, ‘Sulabh has become a generic name in the field of public sanitation.’ Today it is one of the largest NGOs in the country. But Dr.Pathak is not merely a social worker, but a social reformer.
He informs us that hardly 50% of the population has access to sanitation and of that, only 3% in the rural areas. That means for the rest of them, which includes the huge migrant population and slum-dwellers in the cities use any open space as public toilets. What a shame for a country that is sending satellites into space and aims to land a man on the moon! While Delhi has a sewage system designed for a population of 60 lakhs, whereas it has a population of nearly 2 crores. The waste water treatment plants obviously can’t cope with the load and so the Yamuna stinks.
Dr.Pathak also tells us that in a nationwide survey Sulabh had conducted, they found that of the over 5000 major and minor cities of the country, less than 250 have a sewage system and even when they do, they are highly inadequate. One shocking thing he told was that Gurgaon has no sewage system!
Obviously setting up treatment planst for waste water and constructing normal toilets attached to a sewage system is very costly. But government bodies including corporations and municipal councils can set up public toilets on the Sulabh model, with a bio-gas plant attached to it to convert waste into useful byproducts – a cost-effective, environment-friendly solution to a colossal health concern.
Sulabh offers a simple low-cost, water efficient two-pit toilet prototype that can be built in rural areas. It uses just 2 lits of water per flush, in comparison to the conventional flush system that uses as much as 10-15 lts. His model has earned world-wide regognition and is used in many developing countries and has earned him one of the most prestigious awards — the Stockholm Water Prize in 2009, awarded for contribution to water conservation.
The larger public toilet models can be used for generating bio-gas and use the recycled water for flushing as well as for gardens. The waste water that is purified using natural agents like duckweed, a free-floating small aqueous plant, and passing it through charcoal filter and UV rays is crystal clear and completely odourless. The human waste is composted as manure and is again odourless and rich in minerals and nutrients.
If one were to overcome the natural revulsion for the process and the by-product, it is an ingenious way to recycle a disgusting thing which is generated in humongous quantities by a population of over a billion! What is more, it is environment-friendly too. We have heard of cash for trash, but cash for crap is something that has been pioneered by Dr.Bndeshwar Pathak!
Coming from a very orthodox Brahmin family in Bihar, Dr.Pathak had been curious as a child who wondered about the then prevalent custom of untouchability in his village. As an adult, he cocked a snook at social taboos by going to live in the scavengers’ colony for several months to get a glimpse into their lives. He recounts the case of a young bride who wept and vomited at the thought of having to lift night soil on her head. When he tried to tell the family not to force her, they turned around as asked him, ‘Who will give her any other job? Who will touch the things she touches? She has no choice.’
It was then that he realized that such a deep-rooted social problem required committed efforts if a solution were to be found. His Sulabh Sanitation Movement born out of that realization is a social reform movement that integrates the most denigrated of workers into the mainstream of the society by rehabilitating them. For, though no leader or party in power talks about it, there are over a crore dry latrines in the country, which are cleaned manually.
Sulabh has the distinction of making Alwar a completely scavenging-free district. The women who were ‘liberated’ were christened ‘Princesses’ and crowned by the President Pratibha Patil in 2009. In 2008, 36 former scavenging women had the distinction of attending a fashion show organized at a special session of the UN, where they walked the ramp along with well-known models, in clothes they had themselves made!
The entire country can be rid of this social evil. It is not a difficult task. If the government puts it mind to it, it can be done over a period of time. But who has the time for such a ‘shitty’ issue, as long as they can go to perfumed restrooms in five-star hotels and use all the water they want to flush?
At the Sulabh Gram on Palam Dabri Road on the outskirts of Delhi, the organization runs a school, where children of scavengers get education, are given vocational training including sewing, embroidery, fashion deisigning and computer education— all free of cost.
There is also an interesting museum. It traces the history of toilets over 4500 years with an array of toilet prototypes which includes one which resembles a coin box, another used by Louis XIV of France, shaped like a throne, a toilet that incinerates the waste, ornamental ones that look like anything but the actual thing! There are more quaint and some bizarre models.
One wishes that some socially committed politicians or activists start a movement, even a fast to make sanitation a fundamental right for everyone.