Much acclaimed founder of Sulabh International, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak is embodiment of Gandhian values, spreading them through his contemporary lifestyle and work...
Lecturing on Gandhian philosophy might be easy but imbibing and internalising it and practicising in everyday life is very difficult. Its often said that there can’t be another Gandhi. But if someone comes very close to the mark, it is Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh international. His journey from being a student seeking a comfortable and well-paying job to being someone liberating millions from bondage is not only interesting but inspirational as well. His thought process too comes very close to Gandhi’s. And after a brief chat session it is also enlightening to know how practical and relevant his thoughts are in the present context.
Dr Pathak was born in a Brahmin family in Bihar. When he was 14 his family’s fortune incurred huge financial loss after his grandfather’s death. As a young English Graduate he tried many jobs. In 1967, 25 year old Bindeshwar Pathak had missed getting a First Class that would have landed him a lecturer’s job in a college. He tried being a school-teacher, a pay-roll clerk and even a street by street salesman of his grandfather’s bottles of proprietary home-cure mixture. Deciding to get himself a Master’s degree at Sagar University, MP, he boarded a train. At Hajipur, an elderly family friend talked him out of his move and promised him a ‘good job’ instead, in the Gandhi Centenary Committee at ‘Rs. 600 per month’. He got off the train and was led to Patna. The promised job wasn’t quite there, but he believes that his lifelong commitment to scavenger liberation through maintenance-free toilets began that day.
His Brahmin family in Rampur Baghel village of Vaishali believed and practicised untouchability. In his Rampur Baghel village, when women would come to sell sieves and other ware used in winnowing his grandmother always made it point to ensure that nobody from the house ended up touching these women. One day, little Bindeshwar decided to see for himself, what happens when such a person is touched. Nothing happened to him but all hell certainly broke loose in the family. A Brahmin touching a scavenger was a taboo. To cleanse his body and soul the boy was given a ritual bath with Ganga Jal, administered cow-dung and cow-urine.
Dr Pathak did not take up the Gandhi Centenary Committee’s job for any social service. He joined the committee because it was paying well. But, actually he had been deceived. The political instability in Bihar meant that instead of Rs. 600 as promised, it was a temporary job at Rs. 12 per month.
But one meeting in 1967 with well-known Gandhian RajendraLal Das, changed the course of his life. Das then 65, was a member of Sarvodaya movement, that worked on Gandhi’s social concerns. His main focus was on scavenger liberation. He urged Pathak to work with him. This was a cause very dear to Gandhi himself. Gandhi always used to sweep his ashram and clean toilets. He always opposed untouchability. He often used to eat with scavengers.
At the 1901 Calcutta Congress Convention Gandhi shocked delegates asking them not to engage scavengers but to clean their own toilets. Finding no takers, he shocked them some more by dramatically cleaning his own. It left a deep impression on the convention. Subsequent annual conventions had only Congress volunteers cleaning toilets. He always believed in saying - Be the change you want to see around you.
At Das’s urging, Pathak went to live in a Bhangi colony in Bettiah. This cleared him with any brahminism left in him. He wanted to rid them of scavenging. The challenge was to make maintenance-free toilets and train the scavengers for other occupations. The western-style flush toilet was too expensive for middle class India so he looked for technological solutions which should be suitable for both rural and urban India. A deeply sloping toilet pan was developed to enable effective flushing with just a mug of water. But there were no takers thanks to red-tapism.
The break finally came in Arrah in 1973. Municipal Officer when approached Pathak with the idea,was a game. He have an order for two public toilets at a cost Rs 500. Thus India’s first two-pit, maintenance-free privy was built in Arrah using local masons. From here emerged the Sulabh business model, that is still continuing successfully. Sulabh will insist on advance payments but will seek no subsidies, donations, loans or grants. Orders followed in quick succession and soon made the entire Sulabh operation self-sustaining.
Sulabh International has so far, built 1.5 million toilets, liberating more than 1,20,000 scavengers and 640 towns from scavenging. But the task is huge. Over 7 million toilets are still being scavenged
by human beings in India. We need 10 million toilets to completely eradicate scavenging. Dr Pathak is known for the high level of professionalism in achieving his targets. He has a systematic way of surveying the place, estimating the cost and building the toilets. Only Rs 25,000 to Rs 30000 is required to built a toilet. Corporates are willing to fulfill their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) by associating with Dr Pathak. How many people in today’s world would hand over entire cost of the project to somebody before even embarking on it? Can you think of a person to whom Government agencies hand over projects without inviting tender? That is the kind of integrity and credibility Dr Pathak enjoys.
Like Gandhi Dr Pathak too is a man of Spartan habits. He has his strict routine, spiritual practise, simple Khadi dress, simple food habits etc. one could say that he acquired a status of a saint. Who is a saint? Someone who is able to control his desires, who respects his environment, nature, and his surroundings. By this Gandhi was a saint.
So many people idolised Gandhi, but only a few focused on implementing his philosophy. These days when basic fundamentals of Gandhian philosophy are being questioned and sought to be demolished by a section of the society especially on the internet, it is necessary to reorient Gandhian way of life.
In Dr Pathak’s philosophy, there are no restrictions in eating and dressing habits of people. When a child is born, there are three things it inherits naturally which become the fundamental core of his or her being. First, the place he is born. He will naturally have an attachment to that place. No matter where he lives in this world, he would always want to go back to the place he was born. Second, he will always love it, always remember it and will always want it the food cooked by his mother. He could have tried different dishes from around the world, but mom’s food is something he will always long for. Third, his mother tongue. It doesn’t matter how much a man studies, how many languages he learns, every time his mother tongue is spoken he will have a natural affinity for it. He will think in that language. Any conversation in his mother tongue will always touch his heart.
Gandhi might have abjured non-vegetarian food and any other cloth than Khadi, Dr Pathak never put any restrictions that interferes on an individual’s identity. Like Gandhi, he respects and celebrates our country’s pluralism and diversity.
Same goes for Khadi, our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, brought in back in style. He showed the world how fashionable Khadi can be. Khadi is increasingly becoming popular with young people. But, Dr Pathak doesn’t make it compulsory for people to wear Khadi. If you force something on someone, it never becomes a popular move, he feels. If someone thinks that Khadi is important to be a Gandhian, then they will feel disconnected and will not prefer to wear it.
Dr Pathak experimented with the two towns in Rajasthan to remove untouchability. We cannot get rid of the caste system but the discrimination against the lower caste can be stopped by the society though economic independence. The women scavengers were trained in different fields like food processing as well as market oriented trades like tailoring, embroidery, fashion designing, and beauty-care. The trained women naturally acquired self-confidence. In fact, it has boosted their morale and they were engaged in self-sustaining professions. Earlier they earned a merge Rs 300-400, but after training their income went up to Rs 15 thousand a month. They provide beauticians’ services to the women of the very houses they were once barred from entering. Earlier people from the other upper caste wouldn’t even walk on their shadows but now they allow them message their faces.
He wanted to break the concept of ‘twice born’. He helped them perform rites and rituals of the Brahmins and the other upper castes. Initially, there was resistance from the people and they denied them even entry into the temples. He took some of the ‘outcastes’ to the Nathdwara temple. He was met with lot of resistance. Instead of taking a confrontationist attitude he took the path of persuasion and successfully convinced the Priests to allow them entry.
The Brahmin who used to abhor these families later offered them a cup of tea and even invited the ‘untouchables’ on two separate occasions to attend the marriages of their daughters. The scavengers freely mingle with the families of upper castes, especially the families, who earlier employed them to clean and carry night soil. This demonstrated a change in the mind set and attitude of the people of the society. There is hardly any sign of untouchability in these towns now.
The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations invited these liberated scavenger women in 2008 to attend the Proceedings of the House at the United Nations. They also walked the ramp with famous models from United States of America and India. They went to see the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of liberty, equality and freedom and they were so overwhelmed that from this great monument they gave a clarion call that they are no more ‘untouchables’ and have now achieved real freedom.
Today nobody can say that there is no answer or solution to the problem of scavenging or untouchability in India. With persistence, determination and strong leadership we can together challenge, eradicate and reform many unjust practices in our society. The ownership lies with us to take actions. With right affirmative action, former manual scavengers can be brought higher up the social pyramid. It doesn’t happen in a day. You need to be a part of them and understand their pain and suffering. This will generate confidence in them and also among those who believe in untouchability.
He often cites example of Che Guavara who got freedom for Cuba by violence but when he came to India in 1959, he accepted the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and said if you work against the oppressors they will crush the oppressed.
Therefore it is better to bring change in the society by non-violence rather than violence. Truthfulness, non-violence, honesty, integrity, ethics, morality coupled with vision, mission, commitment, capabilities, action and efficiency are some of the ingredient of the philosophy he follows. God has helped each human being to help pthers. Swami Vivekanand said “they alone live who live for others.” While Gandhian philosophy says, “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” And lastly what John F. Kennedy stated in his inaugural address – “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
The most important thing is that we can solve the problems of the society by love, compassion and affection etc. To make a harmonious relationship among the people living in the society we will have to accept the philosophy of Confucius, a great Philosopher and Social Reformer of his time. Dr Pathak always held that he was not Gandhi, but he strongly believed in Gandhian principles implementing them it in every way he could for the betterment of society and prosperity of the country.
His dream for India is no different from the one envisaged by the Father of India,
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