People do pay for latrines

Sunday 31 May 2009

Bindeshwar PathakFour decades ago, when Bindeshwar Pathak began his work on changing unsanitary latrine practices, there were sceptics galore. Today, Pathak's organization Sulabh International is a brand name. The recipient of the 2009 Stockholm Water Prize talks to Bharat Lal Seth on his organization's work ethics. Excerpts:

On Sulabh's success story

I can never forget a chance meeting with Rameshwar Nath in 1972. As an ias officer, Nath had gone through files pertaining to our project on changing social attitudes towards unsanitary latrine practices. He told me our programme would have a great impact one day. But he also said the programme could become a start-stop endeavour if it relied on grants. The alternative was to raise money from beneficiaries. That's what we did. Our success lies in our business model of self-reliance.

On pay-per-use reducing users

Not true. Nobody wants to be called poor; people can and are willing to pay. But then there are those living in extreme poverty. So if somebody comes saying he has no money, I should not deprive him use of toilet facilities. Sanitation is a subject of social commitment. There is a problem if attending to calls of nature acquires a commercial angle.

On Sulabh toilets connected to the drainage system

No. Sulabh toilets are not connected to the drainage system. It's wrong if somebody has connected a Sulabh toilet to a drainage system. Sulabh technologies are not patented. So some 1,000-2,000 public toilet complexes maintained by other ngos and civic bodies use our name. The Sulabh name lends credibility. But then we are also at risk of getting a bad name.

If you see a poorly maintained toilet managed by Sulabh International, do come and tell me.

On Sulabh not fulfilling the conditions of ecological sanitation

Our technology speaks for itself. Let me illustrate. The excreta of an individual generates methane--a greenhouse gas. In Sulabh toilets the gas is recycled for cooking, lighting lamps or as fuel for a heating device.

As far as I am concerned Sulabh toilets fulfil all conditions of ecological sanitation.

On the millennium development goal to halve by 2015 the number of people without basic sanitation

Over the past 35 years we have installed 1.2 million toilets and the government of India has replicated our designs in 40 million facilities. Clearly this is "not enough. Two years ago I told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the technology for toilets has arrived. But Central government funds are not adequate to meet the demands of sanitation in India. Nationalized banks must give loans to construct toilets, just as they provide loans to purchase fertilizers and seeds. Boys and girls should be trained in Sulabh technologies and asked to implement these programmes.

On connecting to the sewer system

In an ideal situation, toilets must be connected to sewerage networks. But according to the 2001 census, only 232 out of 5,161 towns in the country have a sewer network, that too partial coverage. The system is not complete unless a sewer line is connected to a sewage treatment plant. Countries in Africa Asia and Latin America do not have adequate funds to lay down comprehensive sewerage networks.

As sewerage based toilets remains out of the reach of the majority, the challenge is to have toilets which are affordable, upgradeable and easy to maintain. Ours is a global best practice recommended by the undp.

On sceptics and changing perceptions

A new idea always attracts sceptics. Four decades ago, when we were starting out, engineers were sceptical of our technology. I have been trying to popularize a dual pit pour flush system since 1975.

The Sulabh technology is a simple device. It consists of two pits, used alternatively; after one pit fills, excreta is diverted into the second pit, keeping the first in rest period where the excreta converts to solid, odourless, pathogen-free manure. This does not require manual cleaning of excreta.

In comparison to a traditional 10-litre flush, this technology requires 1.5 litres. The world has come to accept it.

On government support to scavengers

There are still 500,000 scavengers in India cleaning toilets manually. The ministry of social justice provides four months training to rehabilitate them. But how can someone be rehabilitated in such a short period?

More funds need to earmarked for their rehabilitation. But this requires political will. The doors of information must be opened to people. Education is the key.

Bindeshwar Pathak

Bindeshwar Pathak

Head of Sulabh International and recipient of the 2009 Stockholm Water Prize


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