Sulabh International founder Bindeshwar Pathak tells Sreelatha Menon if the wealthy in India would spend to build toilets everywhere, it would lead to a revolution. Edited excerpts:
What steps is the government taking to do away with manual scavenging?
No work is happening. There are 7,00,000 bucket toilets in the country that are cleaned manually, while another 7,00,000 are cleaned by animal scavengers. The government has to identify these and convert these into two-pit toilets. A survey on this has been going on for five years; work on the conversion is yet to begin.
How soon can you stop manual scavenging?
If I don't do it in three years, the prime minister can send me to jail. Conversion of 14,00,000 bucket toilets is no big deal. The funds required to create 14,00,000 two-pit Sulabh toilets would be about Rs 1,400 crore. The sanitation budget of the government is about Rs 6,000 crore. The problem is the will of the government.
Why has Sulabh International refused to take government grants?
I am still against it. But in the future, we will need funding not only for sanitation, but also for other projects we are taking up. These won't be government funds, unless it is the cost of some work to be done. I would primarily seek funds from the public.
Have you approached the industry to fund sanitation and eradicate manual scavenging?
If Gates can spend a billion, why can't our wealthy do it? But I have never asked anyone. If the wealthy would spend, we would create toilets everywhere; it would lead to a revolution. Azim Premji gave $2 billion to his own foundation. If he gives it to me, I will bring about a sanitation revolution.
Does the new manual scavenging Bill hold any promise?
Removal of scavenging is not the work of law. In 1972, we had an ordinance, but no one heard of it thereafter. In 1993, the government brought about an Act, but no one noticed it. If you have a bucket toilet in your house and I convince you and make a better, two-pit toilet with a flush and give you money for it, why wouldn't you agree? It is a simple thing; why make a law? The new law is more complicated than the earlier ones. In this, manual scavenging and drain scavenging are combined; now, neither would be done away with. Sulabh wiped out manual scavenging from Alwar and Tonk districts in Rajasthan; it didn't need a law for this. We just converted the toilets of villagers. The villager is happy to get a flush toilet, while the manual scavenger is happy to be trained to do something else. It is such a simple solution. The law says 'we will break your toilet if it is a bucket toilet'. We say 'we will make your toilet'.
Would 1.4 million new toilets do away with manual scavenging?
Not if these are converted into toilets that need septic tanks, as theses tanks also require scavenging. Sulabh toilets don't need septic tanks. the United Nations Development Programme adopted our model and termed it low-cost sanitation. So, the rich shunned it. Had these toilets been promoted as just toilets, there would be no need for septic tanks.
How can we stop defecation on railway tracks?
We have suggested whenever trains stop, containers be removed and put in an effluent treatment plant. It is possible. But the government wants to spend decades researching on bio-toilets. It is like a doctor who asks his son to take care of his patients while he is away; when he returns, he finds the patients have stopped coming. The son explains he has cured them all, leaving the father distraught. The government and funding agencies, too, don't want problems to end.
Did you propose to use the effluent treatment technology to clean the Yamuna? Sunita Narain documented how sewage has killed the river.
Most people are good storytellers. But ask them for solutions, and they won't have any. I have demonstrated how effluents can be treated to produce power. I have installed 200 effluent treatment plants in India and one in Kabul. These provide bio fuel for cooking and electricity. But if you go and tell people you could clean the river, they think we have an ulterior motive.
What do you think of the community-led toilet system propagated by Kamal Kar and funding agencies?
That requires one to wait for mindsets to change.
But if mindsets don't change and people are given toilets, they are using these as storerooms and cowsheds.
There is a reason for this. The government made toilets and gave it to people who didn't need those. It gave these to people below the poverty line, who didn't have food to eat; it didn't give these to people above the poverty line. Give the poor food, education and health. Toilets are a sign of prosperity. You should have given the first toilet in the village to the mukhiya, then to the others. The government coerced an unwilling partner. It is always doing that.
We made two- pit toilets as early as in 1969. It is patent-free. It would not have cost the government anything. If I wanted to earn from it, I would have been a millionaire today. But how many toilets would I have made? The government agreed to install two- pit toilets only in 2008, when Raghuvansh Prasad was the rural development minister.
There are three things the government should do to make the sanitation programme successful - it must give an assistance to build toilets, introduce bank loans for building toilets and bring about toilet masons and sanitation workers to assist people in securing loans, as well as in maintaining toilets.
Recently, the Supreme Court had suggested Sulabh be asked to help widows living in Vrindavan. Is that what prompted you to engage with widows in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand?
The Supreme Court's belief in me is my greatest reward. I don't need anything else. Now, Sulabh is giving pensions to widows not only in Vrindavan, but also in Varanasi and some villages in Uttarakhand. But it is not just money. We are also spending time with them, teaching them various things and making them feel cared for.
The reason why Sulabh or anyone else has to do this is because bureaucrats aren't educated enough on social issues. Widows have been coming to these places for the last 500 years, and they continue to do so. What we can do in a year, the government can do in a month. It is a question of 120 million widows with nowhere to go.
Why was a school for the children of scavengers built at Palam?
That was where manual scavengers were relocated from Turkman Gate by Sanjay Gandhi. Though people speak ill of him, he tried to stop the practice by shifting them to a place of their own. As for population, why deny it was a problem that needed attention? But unfortunately, mistakes were made.
After taking up the case of widows, are you looking at anything else?
I would work on the devdasis of Andhra Pradesh.