Cash for crap

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.

Dr.Bindeshwar Pathak holding up the now clear waste water after purification

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!

Usha Cahumar being crowned by the President

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.

46 comments

  1. Hey Zephyr, I feel small, very very small when I look upto people like Mr. Pathak. Hats off to this tremendous effort which no one else will even touch. What a wasteful life we are leading, earning money for ourselves, our gadgets, our dinner outs and what not. Time for introspection!

    As for the govt, the lesser said the better. We are indeed an uncivil society – for once congress got it right (pun intended).

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    1. What impresses one about him is that he dared to go and actually live with scavengers to find out more about their lives and in a caste-ridden state like Bihar! The govt. does not care as long they can go on holding on to power under any condition. As for the Congress the less said the better. They will only agitate for the rights of down-trodden in states they don’t rule and issue sanctimonious statements. But every time I look at the poor, I feel so ashamed of the things we are NOT doing for them.

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  2. Makes me wonder if we are fit enough to be called a ‘civilized society’. Apart from developing robust sewerage and toilet systems, there is an urgent need to develop the villages to check the massive migration of the poor to the cities.

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  3. The right to live with dignity, the Right to education, the list is endless and all the government has time for, is revoking archaic laws and thwarting attempts to make the elected answerable to the electorate.

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    1. Nice to have you back home, Purba!

      Brazening it out seems to be the biggest virtue today, at least where the government is concerned, else how can they go to the same slum-dwellers who live in inhuman conditions asking for votes? and what’s more, they don’t hold themselves accountable for anything that affects the poor.

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  4. Wonderful post. You have created awareness among readers about this. Much of this was news for me.

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    1. My first feeling when I see people using open spaces for relieving themselves is one of sympathy and then of revulsion, never the other way round. Why would they demean themselves so if they had an alternative? Dr. Pathak has been one of the reformers I have grown up with, his movement starting when i was in college. So I have been following his work. I wrote the post mainly because we tend to gloss over uncomfortable social issues and I wanted to directly address one such issue.

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  5. Sanitation is vital when it comes to hygiene. Rural areas are also growing.
    Hey toilets at Connaught Place, Delhi are free. 😛

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    1. The government always puts the cart before the horse and so are spending crores for health schemes, which are pointless without basic sanitation. If the filth remains, what is the use of doing research into dengue prevention? I wonder if the ‘free’ toilets can be constructed and maintained in slum clusters. They deserve them!

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  6. A very well written post that really revels the condition of our country. Even with all the economic development we are unable to provide for the a large part of our population.

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    1. It all depends upon the perspective: do sanitation and primary health care fall under development or connecting people with communication lines and holding mega sports events do?

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  7. Hi again. Re Project Why: I’m waiting for my sponsored kid’s details, let’s see when that happens. Thanks for the comment though. As to how did I reach your blog, well, real beauty of course! 🙂 I wrote this one: http://twistingthetail.blogspot.com/2011/05/hello-beautiful.html

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  8. ..and they spent the money they did on the Commonwealth Games. And they say that as long as you earn more than Rs 20 a day, you aren’t poor. So if out of that 20, 4 is spent going to the toilet a mere two times a day… Good post.

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    1. The parameters of the govt. can be confounding indeed. And no, it is not just two people per family in the slums or even the pavement dwellers. so it is more than Rs.4 they would need to use the toilets when they have nothing to eat. what an irony!

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      1. Nothing to eat = nothing to crap. Perhaps that is the govt’s logic since anything else seems too much to ask of them.

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  9. wow! what an inspiring person. Thank you for highlighting his cause-now why cant the government use its resources to back him up-ooops forgot that we’re talking about the Indian Govt…

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    1. I remember the ‘honorable’ CM of Delhi, Sheila Dixit refusing to weild a broom ( a brand new one) even symbolically to start off a clean Delhi campaign some years ago. That being the case, how will the likes of her even acknowledge that the poor too have to relieve themselves and in the absence of a toilet will HAVE to do it somewhere! In the process they are only endangering the health of their own babas and babies 😛

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  10. Improper Sanitation is one problematic crisis and the worst affected are the poor people..this is such a sad scenario indeed! Hats off to people like Dr Pathak who lead with an example, and fill us with a hope that we can bring about a positive change! All that’s needed is a strong will and some efforts from our side. Awesome post as always 🙂

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    1. It is indeed sad that the government can’t at least subsidise these pay and use toilets so that the poor can benefit out of it. Sulabh issues monthly family ‘passes’ for the use of their services at Rs.30 per month, which is reasonable.

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  11. Sanitation, hygiene and over all cleanliness is the LEAST priority in our country. Crores are allotted to people’s representatives for developmental projects but here too they do not care for public toilets.
    Here in California, I find the toilets in Malls, hospitals , offices and restaurants spic and span and we may not match to their standard.Sulabh toilets scheme is good but the people managing them are not pro-active and do not care.

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    1. What the govt. doesn’t realise is that by focusing on sanitation, they can reduce the health costs. but it is a taboo subject, as long as the powers that be can sit on their thrones in comfort. But yes, pay and use toilet attendants can be cussed somtimes. But it is not always Sulabh that is at work. Like Mr.Pathak says, Sublabh has become a generic word today for public toilets 🙂

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  12. Hello,

    This is my first visit to your blog, I like you blogs and the issues u mention.. Good work.

    As many mentioned i too appreciate concept of sulabh toilets.
    coming to the sanitation facilities in slums. The government has started programs like Integrated Low Cost sanitation (ILCS) where the Govt helps the dwellers to build toilets with subsidies and a very Huge Project called Rajiv Awas Yojana where Rs.4700 crores central govt is spending to upgrade the slums on par with the cities.. though there will be flaws but i hope at least 60% of slums will be improved.

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    1. Welcome here Bharathi and thanks for the comment. When Govt. does such projects, they are not bound to succeed for the simple reason that they build conventional toilets which stink because it requires a lot of water and needs to be kept clean. how many such public toilets have we seen broken and overflowing for want of cleanliness due to lack of water? I wonder why the low cost energy generating Sulabh model is not being followed, only the mandarins of North Block can say.

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  13. Reliable water supply,regular waste disposal and recycling and decent sanitation are the basis on which Social and Human Development can be truly measured .People like Sh Pathak are the real Heroes.

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    1. We fail miserably on all the counts and our government is least bothered about these issues, as long as they have enough water in their toilets.

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  14. As usual super post 🙂 I think Sulabhs are the biggest blessings to Indian women…Suranga-ji had also done a wonderful post on this one earlier…its so important to have proper sanitation..if there is access to sanitation, I am sure a lot of problems of India will get spoilt..and like you say, if the waste of a billion people is recycled to biogas it will definitely solve a lot of energy problems and dependence on crude oil (which is mostly imported into India) for us 🙂 Imagine the amount of money which we will save!

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    1. You bet! When you are travelling by public transport in the interiors of the country, the sight of one is pleasant, if I may say so 🙂 Do send me the link to the post you mention. We are not going to do anything till someone patents the sulabh model outside India and then we will pay them crores to ‘import’ it to India. That is the fate of this country 😦

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        1. Thanks. I will check it out.

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  15. Interesting post and quite an eye opener ! Though I did know of sulabh toilets, I didn’t know the details of the history of it…
    Kudos to Mr Pathak for pioneering this ! Sanitation is a major problem in our country and much of the health issues are due to the lack of it!
    We certainly need more of the likes of Mr Pathak !

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    1. He is one of the personalities in my second book and so got all the dope when I interviewed him. Actually the technology is so simple, I am tempted to do another post on it, at the cost of making my readers wrinkle their noses 😀

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  16. It indeed is a huge issue and not an easy one to tackle. Even if the government does try to create facilities like the pay per use toilets which indeed would be better than the unmanaged free toilets, the population is burgeoning beyond control. Afterall, whatever gets done in India is never ever enough. Ofcourse, if the corruption and red tapism slowed down, more money could be spent on these things.

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    1. The govt is doing that — by offering the contracts to commercial outfits which charge indiscriminately to make their profit. And all the money allocated for these purposes is useless as long as corruption and siphoning of money meant for basic infrastructure continue.

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  17. Wow Z – what a fantastic post…hats off to Mr pathak…but unfortunately our government has more important things to do like renaming our states and cities…!!! So i think we just need more Mr Pathak

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    1. Hey Nuts,,where have you been all these days? Sanitation doesn’t get the priority that it should and with many commercial operators being given the contract for running public toilets in slums, there is no commitment towards the poor. An NGO like sulabh, can fill in this vacuum by offering low cost passes to the families to use the services.

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  18. What an apt post… you wont believe that my complex on the Sohna Road in Gurgaon does not have a sewage line. The waste is pumped and dumped on the nearby vacant plot….its distressing . The sewer line is under construction for the past several years.

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    1. I wouldn’t believe it when Dr.Pathak told me that the high-rises of Gurgaon are not connected to any sewage system and today you are confirming the same. Even when the lines are laid, they don’t lead to any sewage system since the town doesn’t have any. It is appalling to know that the glittering millennium city is lagging in this basic infrastructure.

      Apparently the same system that works for public toilets can work for highrises too and the recycled water can be gainfully used to irrigate the gardens and the solid waste composted into manure.

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  19. Nice post. I recently visited a village in a jungle where the local corporator had installed toilets to be used for free. It was a stinking area with no water, and not surprisingly, the people were still rushing to the jungle to answer nature’s calls. On asking, we were told that the same situation existed throughout, and besides, the corporator expected them to be ‘grateful’ to him for his help, and vote for him the next time too… since he had spent the money from his fund!! just imagine… the situation would have been so much better had he simply handed over the responsibility to an organisation like Sulabh… what a waste of money and resources.. thats where our tax money goes… into the crap!

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    1. We are so good at doing things for the sake of it, without pausing to find out if it is useful or practical. That seems to be the case with the toilets this corporator had built. If one can spare the time, a visit to Sulabh Gram is worthwhile. Dr.Pathak said that they have not patented any technology and want to propagate the design to benefit as many people as possible.

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  20. I tell you… We expect there should be no epidemics or disease breakouts – but how will they not happen if we don’t good sanitation facilities because only after they are available can the importance of hygiene be taught.

    The Sulabh model should be replicated across India- every state should adopt it. Imagine Chithi if the women folk can’t afford to pay Rs 2 to use the toilet how diff it must be for them during their menstruation cycle.

    The next step should be to provide them with free sanitary napkins (why can’t it be done thru the primary healthcare centers and anganwadis)-It is a Must!!!

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    1. Right, Sunshine Girl! I can feel the anger and the angst. The least we can do for these women is to allow them the use of our house toilets; sadly many don’t even allow that unless they have a servant’s toilet. I feel it is inhuman. The conditions these women live in is one of untold misery. and you are right about the time when they have their periods and when someone has diarrhea. I can’t bear to think.

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  21. what a crappy post! (pun not intended)
    does our government have any priorities apart from self aggrandizement?

    sulabh is indeed one of the best things that could have happened. thanks to dr.pathak.

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    1. 🙂 I am one of those many women who would be thankful to Dr.Pathak for setting up those clean public toilets. Prior to that, the state thought that women were a bladderless species and we had to suffer.

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      1. Well as an 6 yr old kid i used to wonder why only men’s urinals were constructed. And then I came to a conclusion that women like to use toilets at home 😀

        PS : Sulabh doesn’t think that way 😀

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        1. Isn’t it good that Sulabh doesn’t think that way? Otherwise women, especially the older ones would be the worst sufferers. But of course women prefer their own house but in an emergency, where do they go? 🙂

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          1. Its obviously good 🙂

            – Shivam Tiwari
            (thoughtdetonation.blogspot.com)

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