A Brief History of Class and Waste in India

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 3.03.02 PM

Rose George | The Big Necessity, Metropolitan Books | 2008 | 28 minutes (6,900 words)

Below is a full chapter from The Big Necessity, Rose George’s acclaimed 2008 book exploring the world of human waste. The book will be reissued later this year with a new afterword. George’s 2013 book 90 Percent of Everything was featured previously on Longreads, and we’re thrilled to spotlight her work again. 

***

It drips on her head most days, says Champaben, but in the monsoon season it’s worse. In rain, worms multiply. Every day, nonetheless, she gets up and walks to her owners’ house, and there she picks up their excrement with her bare hands or a piece of tin, scrapes it into a basket, puts the basket on her head or shoulders, and carries it to the nearest waste dump. She has no mask, no gloves, and no protection. She is paid a pittance if she is paid at all. She regularly gets dysentery, giardia, brain fever. She does this because a 3,000-year-old social hierarchy says she has to.

In the beginning, the Original Being created four varnas. From his mouth came the Brahmins, who would be the priests, teachers, and intellectuals. From the arms came the Kshatriya, the warriors and rulers. From his thighs came the Vaisya, who were the administrators, the bureaucrats, the merchants; and from his feet the Being formed the Shudra, the farmers and peasants. Inside these varnas are thousands of subgroupings, each with a traditional occupation attached. All of it makes up the Hindu caste system, still pervasive and influential in modern India. In its report Broken People, Human Rights Watch summed up caste as “the world’s longest surviving social hierarchy … a complex ordering of social groups on the basis of ritual purity.” It is indeed complex, changing from region to region and from one religious interpretation to another. But all over India one thing is common: beneath the castes are the outcastes, the polluted and the untouchable. They are untouchable because they handle human shit.

They used to be known as bhangi, a word formed from the Sanskrit for “broken,” and the Hindi for “trash.” Today, official India calls them the Scheduled Castes, but activists prefer Dalits, a word that means “broken” or “oppressed” but with none of the negativity of bhangi. Most modern Indians don’t stick to their caste jobs anymore. There is more intercaste marriage, more fluidity, more freedom than ever before, but the outcastes are usually still outcastes, because they are still the ones who tan India’s animals, burn its dead, and remove its excrement. Champaben is considered untouchable by other untouchables—even the tanners of animals and the burners of corpses—because she is a safai karamchari. This literally means “sweeper” but is generally translated into English as “manual scavenger,” a term popularized by India’s British rulers, who did nothing to eradicate the practice and much to keep it going. This scavenging has none of the usefulness of its usual meaning. There is no salvaging of waste, no making good of the dis¬carded. Champaben recycles nothing and gains nothing. She takes filth away and for this she is considered dirt.

There are between 400,000 and 1.2 million manual scavengers in India, depending on who is compiling the figures. They are employed by private families and by municipalities, by army cantonments and rail¬way authorities. Their job is to clean up feces wherever they present themselves: on railway tracks, in clogged sewers. Mostly, they empty India’s dry latrines. A latrine is usually defined as a receptacle in the ground that holds human excreta, but dry latrines often don’t bother with receptacles. They usually consist of two bricks, placed squatting distance apart on flat ground. There is no pit. There may be a channel or gutter nearby, but that would be luxury. The public ones usually have no doors, no stalls, and no water. There are still up to 10 million dry latrines in India, and they probably only survive because Champaben and others are still prepared to clean them.

I meet Champaben in a village in rural Gujarat. Like every other state in India, Gujarat is bound by the 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which makes manual scavenging illegal on pain of a year’s imprisonment or a 2,000 rupee ($45) fine. On paper, Champaben doesn’t exist, and on paper, she is as free as the next villager. Untouchability has been illegal in India since 1949, when it was abolished by means of Article 17 of the Constitution of India.

Champaben knows that. But what can she do? Scavengers have been doing their work since they were children, and they will do it until they die, and then their children will take over. Champaben’s mother-in-law, Gangaben, is seventy-five years old. She has been scavenging for fifty years. In a village nearby, I meet Hansa and her daughter, Meena, who is ten. Meena has already been introduced to her mother’s job because she has to do it when her mother is ill or pregnant or both. Most manual scavenging is done by women, because they marry into it and have no choice. Men in the manual scavenger class often hide their profession from prospective brides until it’s too late, and they can then escape their foul work in alcohol, because they have a wife to do it for them. Some scavengers work in cities as sewer cleaners and unclog blockages with their bare hands, their only protection a rope. They are regularly killed. Last year, three men died of asphyxiation, one after the other, when they entered a manhole in New Delhi.

The women talk freely. They are chatty and assertive and pristine. I look at them and try to see the dirt on them and in them, but I can’t. They are elegant and beautiful even when they bend down to pick up the two pieces of cracked tin they use to scoop up the excrement; when they demonstrate how they sweep the filth into the basket; when they lift the basket high with arms glittering with bangles, with considerable grace. Their compound is dusty but not dirty, though they are not given soap by their employers—whom they refer to more accurately as their “owners”—and though they are not allowed to get water from the well without permission from an upper-caste villager. They offer me a tin beaker of water, and the water is yellow. “Look at it,” says Mukesh, an activist from a local Dalit organization called Navsarjan who has accompanied me. “Look at what they have to drink.” The beaker presents a quandary. I consider pathogens and fecal-oral contamination pathways, but also that they’ll expect me to refuse to take a drink from an untouchable, because many Indians would. I take a sip and hope for the best, feeling pious and foolish, imagining bugs and worms slipping down into my guts, wreaking havoc.

Mukesh has been to this village before. Plenty of well-meaning activists have been here before. “You come here all the time, you institute people,” says Gangaben. “And what do you do? Nothing.” Gangaben is the most indignant. She disappears into the house and returns with two chappatis—flatbreads—on a plate. Look at this, she says. This is what I was paid today. Scraps. Privately employed scavengers usually get paid 5 rupees (about ten cents) per month, per house. Municipal day wages are 30 rupees (less than a dollar) a day, but scavengers are often unpaid for months on end. Who will dare to stand up to their employer? When I ask Hansa to show me where she works, she refuses. No way. “My owners would skin me alive.” She is deadly serious, and deadliness is something she has to consider.

***

There are laws to protect Dalits, to criminalize untouchability, and to outlaw manual scavenging, but they are not enforced. Violence and abuse against Dalits is endemic and unceasing. Over six months in 2006, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice surveyed the Indian media for reports of abuse against Dalits and gathered a few headlines:

“Dalit leader abused for daring to sit on a chair”

“Dalit lynched while gathering grain”

“Dalit beaten for entering temple”

“Dalit girl resists rape, loses arm as a result”

“Dalit tries to fetch water beaten to death”

Navsarjan calculates that three Dalits are killed each day. Police statistics from the last five years, gathered by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, tell a similar tale of brutality. According to those—definitely incomplete—statistics, thirteen Dalits were murdered per week and three Dalit women were raped every day. (A human rights worker tells me with bitterness that “untouchability doesn’t apply when it comes to vaginas.”) During my most recent trip to India, I read a newspaper article of a Dalit schoolgirl who had been gang raped somewhere in provincial India, but I didn’t note the name of the village. When I looked for it later online, searching for “gang rape” and “Dalit,” I got through three pages of results before despondency made me stop, because they all related to other cases.

A 2006 survey of 565 villages in eleven states found that Dalit children in 37.8 percent of government schools were forced to sit apart from other children during mealtimes. Part of that 37.8 percent is Hansa’s daughter, a pretty child who tells me she’s not allowed to sit with her school friends. When I ask Meena what she wants to do when she grows up, she puts her head in her hands.

The same survey found that health workers refused to enter Dalit homes in 33 percent of villages, and in nearly a quarter of villages, postmen refused to deliver mail to Dalit houses. Control and prohibitions percolate into all aspects of Dalit life. The Indian writer Gita Ramaswamy quotes some elderly manual scavengers in Hyderabad who were reluctant to give their names. Then they explained why. “We were told very categorically by the upper castes that our names were to be self-ridiculing. If any parent or grandparent chose a fair name of the child, we were instantly abused for having lost sight of our aukath (social and moral position).” They list their names. Jhamta, Kaloo, Gobar, Ghoodo. Spade, Black, Dung, Horse.

Champaben, Hansa, and Gangaben have no need of statistics. They only need to try to wash themselves at the village water source when they are dirty with shit. They will be turned away by the higher-caste women who are there. They need only try to enter their village temple and they will be refused access. They need only to ask for a glass of water from their employers/owners and they will have to watch as water is poured directly into their cupped hands, so that no crockery is dirtied. In times not too long gone, Dalits were made to wear bells around their necks to warn of their passage, because even their shadows are polluting. It makes sense to Gangaben: “We carry excreta on our heads. Of course we are unclean.”

Theories about the origins of the scavenger caste vary. Perhaps they came about when the Mughal emperors used prisoners of war to clean their wives’ harems, or perhaps that’s handy anti-Muslim prejudice. One of the fifteen duties for slaves listed in the Hindu holy text Narada Samhita was the disposal of human excreta. India is not unique in treat­ing people who work with dirt as polluted. The old gongfermors of Vic­torian London knew to keep to themselves. One medieval edict forbade baiting of cesspit emptiers on pain of a fine, and what would be the point of having a fine for something that never happened? In a milder version of marginalization, toilet attendants and sewage workers worldwide admit to lying about their place of work, turning themselves into “hygiene managers” or “local government workers” to avoid scrutiny or disgust. The director of a London sewage treatment works admitted to me that when he tells new acquaintances what his job is, “some people do move three feet backwards.”

Nor is Hinduism the only religious system to set out purity rules. Deuteronomy 23 instructs Jews to “have a place outside the camp and go out there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement.” The texts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls are more precise: proper hygiene requires Jews to defecate between 1,000 and 2,000 cubits (1,500 to 4,500 feet) away from camp, in a northwesterly direction. (Something didn’t translate to the New Testament, though, as the Tartars were reported to have a curse that exhorted enemies “to tarry so long in one place that thou mightiest smell like thine own dung like the Christians do.”) One sacred Hindu text calls for Indians to fire an arrow and defecate only where it lands or farther. The Vishnu Purana, dating from the first to the third century BCE, instructs followers to defecate at least 150 feet from a source of water, and to urinate 15 feet away from habitation. The Buddhist text Vinaya Pitaka, a rulebook for monks, is expansive in its toilet provisions. Proper Bud­dhists should, among other things, not defecate in the toilet in order of seniority but of arrival; cough loudly upon arriving at the toilet (and if there is an occupant, he should cough in response); not defecate while chewing tooth-wood; nor grunt upon defecation; and not wipe oneself with a rough stick.

None of this is much comfort to the scavenger women. But they don’t expect comfort. They don’t expect anything. “Our caste is written on our forehead,” says Champaben. “Ours is low and yours is high. That’s the way it is.” A young girl named Dhurmisthu is less entranced by tradition. “The caste system has nothing to do with religion. It’s a conspiracy maintained by the upper castes. We think we’re equal, but they just see brooms in our hand.”

Young urban Indians contend that caste is irrelevant now, because India’s huge metropolises act as a mixing bowl, diluting old traditions and backward thinking. What happens to Hansa and Gangaben, they will say, is a thing of the villages, of peasants, of tradition and history. They will point to successful Dalit lawyers, politicians, academics. The current chief justice is a Dalit. Plenty of politicians in India’s upper house are Dalit. Under India’s Scheduled Castes reservations system—which is controversial but widely implemented—Dalits benefit from positive discrimination in employment and university places. But they are still Dalits, and there is still caste. Surveys show that the majority of young Indians still expect to have an arranged marriage, and 40 percent won’t marry outside their own caste or state.

The glass ceiling pressing down upon the scavengers’ heads consists of cultural prejudices, but also of economics. When I first wrote about manual scavengers for the American magazine Jane, the first draft of my story came back punctuated with the editor’s questions. She couldn’t understand why scavengers felt obliged to do this work, and who employed them. She wrote, “Who are their bosses? Uneducated farmers? (I’m assuming that the more educated the people are, the less tolerant they are of these conditions.)” That’s a nice hope. In fact, manual scavengers continue to be employed by municipal authorities, who use them to clean sewers, and by Indian Railways. Last year, the company declined to say when it could phase out the use of manual scavengers to clean its tracks. Until fully sealed flush latrines were installed on its trains in place of the current “open discharge” ones, scavengers were the cheapest cleaning option. A high court in Nizamabad only demolished its dry latrine—cleaned by scavengers—when ordered to do so by the Supreme Court.

For Navsarjan, the solution to manual scavenging and untouchabil­ity is loud activism and alternative employment. There are programs that provide manual scavengers with loans to set up small businesses, but only a fraction of their funds have so far been disbursed. A newer initiative will provide more loan money and skills training. It also specified 2009 as the new target for the total eradication of manual scavenging. The previous target had been 2007, and there had been others. Safai Karmachari Andolan, another noisy Dalit organization, prefers direct action over empty promises, and often demolishes dry latrines by hand (the rubble, carefully labeled, is kept in a cabinet in the SKA office). Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, however, preferred not to destroy toilets, but to build them.

Pathak founded the organization Sulabh International in 1970. It is now India’s largest charity, with 50,000 on its staff. Millions of Indians have installed the Sulabh Shauchalaya latrine. Of more interest to non-Indians will be the half a million public toilets that Sulabh has built all over India. Every day, ten million Indians—and plenty of relieved foreign travelers—use a Sulabh toilet, because they are in railway stations, airports, on the main streets of India’s cities. Pathak’s toilet blocks are so common, Indians now say “I’m going to the Sulabh,” and the word toilet can be left silent.

Sulabh’s headquarters consists of a pleasant campus near Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. The campus has green lawns that refresh after the yellow brown dust and chaos outside, and signs urging visitors to smile, please, because you’re in Sulabh now.

I have visited Sulabh twice, and each time the procedure was the same. First, assembly, held in a low hall near the kitchen that cooks with biogas, fermented from the excrement deposited in the Sulabh public toilet complex next door. To reach the meeting hall, you walk over those green lawns, which get their color from being irrigated with effluent from the same toilets, cleaned with sand filters and UV light. On the way, you will pass through part of the outdoor display of cheap latrine models, the reason Sulabh came into existence, and you might find the odd visitor or two, as I did in 104-degree Fahrenheit heat one day in May, when an artist’s assistant from London was busy gluing blocks of dried Rajasthani excrement for a show by the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra. (The blocks were shown in a plain room, simply standing, because their substance was deemed subject enough.) After one visit to Sulabh, such encounters seem normal, because this is a place that has a science lab that contains glass jars filled with “Balls of Dried Excrement,” and where deeply courteous scientists in white coats will express their great excitement about the sewage-cleansing properties of duckweed, or dip their hands into a box of dry, brown granulated stuff and say “Excrement! Like gravel!”

Then you will be led into the hall, presented with a beautiful silk scarf and a garland of flowers, and you will watch while children in neat blue uniforms, the girls with red ribbons in their plaited hair, sing the Sulabh song whose lyrics exhort you to “come together and build a happy Sulabh world.” These are the children of the Sulabh school, housed in a complex on the other side of a yard of demonstration pit-latrine models. It is a unique school because two-thirds of its intake are the children of manual scavengers. The education they are given here ensures that their parents’ job will not also be theirs, one day. It is a happy scene, but it has been built on forty years of one man’s stubborn conviction that scavenging is a sickness in his culture, and that toilets can heal it.

***

In the late 1960s, the young Pathak committed a grievous sin. He was studying sociology, and like many young Indians getting used to being part of a newly independent and ambitious nation, he was an idealist. His ideals were those of Mohandas K. Gandhi. The father of the modern Indian nation was one of the few political leaders in history to publicly talk about toilets. There is a scene in Richard Attenborough’s biopic film where Gandhi argues with his wife because she refuses to clean their latrine. She says it is the work of untouchables; he tells her there is no such thing.

Gandhi also argued with everyone else. At the 1901 Congress Party convention, he told delegates it was a disgrace that manual scavengers were being used to clean the latrines. He asked delegates to clean their own latrines and when they did not, he publicly cleaned his own. The eradication of manual scavenging was a recurrent theme throughout Gandhi’s life. He called the practice “the shame of the nation.” He wrote, “Evacuation is as necessary as eating; and the best thing would be for everyone to dispose of his own waste.”

For a great politician to talk freely about such things in public was impressive, but Gandhi’s position had its critics. Plenty of Dalits object to Gandhi’s comparing scavengers with mothers looking after others’ children, when the children are upper-caste Indians content to keep these “mothers” in a state of servitude. The great Dalit politician Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who thought that “inequality was the soul of Hinduism,” wanted caste to be abolished, not tinkered with.

In 1969, the idealistic young Pathak began to volunteer with the Gandhian Centenary Committee in his home state of Bihar. The committees job was to organize three years of programs and celebrations in honor of their hero’s birth. Their hero cared about scavengers, so the volunteers were supposed to do the same. It scandalized his orthodox Brahmin family.

In his spacious office at Sulabh headquarters, Pathak, now sixty-four, tells a family anecdote. “When I was a child, I wanted to know why some people were untouchable. I wanted to see what would happen if I touched one, so I did.” His grandmother made him eat cow dung and sand, drink cow urine, then take a ritual bath. How can dung be clean? Purity rituals that seem to defy sense are common to many cultures: ancient Mesopotamians carried dung around their necks to ward off evil; Hindus decided that cow dung is holy. Such classifications of what is dirty and what is pure are obviously not about reality, but they serve a purpose. Investing dirt with power makes it more manageable. Deciding that some people are irreversibly impure makes them more manageable, too. They can be kept in their place. Even so, writes Virginia Smith in Clean, her history of hygiene, “Distancing yourself from poisons, dust and dirt is one thing, but distancing yourself from invisibly ‘unclean’ people and objects is quite an achievement of the imagination.” It was a leap of imagination that Pathak refused to make.

Instead, a few years later, he risked more cow punishment by going to live with scavengers. There, he found both outrage and a vocation. He couldn’t believe people lived in such conditions. The state of Bihar had for years been running a latrine-building program statewide in an attempt to remove the dry latrines that scavengers had to clean. Yet the women carrying head-loads of excrement were still there. “Scavengers’ appalling hardship, humiliation and exploitation,” Pathak wrote, “have no parallel in human history. [. . . It is] the utmost violation of human rights.”

Gandhi’s tactics of encouraging brotherly love across caste boundaries and urging Indians to clean their own latrines had failed miserably. The status quo was too convenient. Pathak decided a better solution was to provide an alternative technology. Scavengers’ jobs would never be surplus to India’s needs, not with a population of a billion excreting people. Perhaps the solution was to make scavengers unemployable by eradicating dry latrines. Not by knocking them down, but by providing a better latrine model that didn’t require humans to clean it but was cheap and easy. Most important, it had to be easy to keep nice. Given a choice between a smelly, dirty latrine and the street, even the most desperate might choose the latter. Pathak read WHO manuals about pit latrines, and developed his own version.

It had to be on-site, because India has neither water nor sewers enough to install expensive waterborne treatment systems. Even today, only 232 of India’s 5,233 towns have even partial sewer coverage. Indian urban wastewater treatment consists of dumping it in rivers. The mighty Yamuna River, which supposedly dropped to earth from heaven but actually runs nearly 200 miles from the Himalayas through the nation’s capital, has millions of gallons of sewage poured into it every day. By the time it reaches Delhi, the Yamuna is dead. As for the Ganges, its fecal coliform count makes its supposedly purifying waters a triumph of wishful thinking, unless the purification is the kind you get from chronic diarrhea, dysentery, or cholera.

Pathak called his new latrine the Sulabh Shauchalaya (Easy Latrine). It was twin-pit and pour-flush. It could be flushed with only a cupful of water, compared to the dozen or so liters needed to operate flush toilets. There was no need to connect it to sewers or septic tanks, because the excreta could compost in one pit, and when that was full, after two to four years, the latrine owner could switch to the other, leaving the full pit to compost. This was another Gandhian concept. The Mahatma had used the phrase tatti par mitti (soil over shit) and would dig a pit for his own excreta then cover it with soil when it was full. The Great Soul of India was a pioneering composter. The Easy Latrine leached its liquids into the ground but supposedly without polluting groundwater. And it was cheap, with the most inexpensive model costing only 500 rupees ($10).

Despite all this, Pathak’s technology found no takers for three years. He had to sell some of his wife’s jewelry, and resorted to peddling his grandfather’s bottles of home-cure remedies. Until one day, when he entered an office in a town in Bihar and sold the idea of the Sulabh model to the municipal officer on duty.

The Sulabh model consisted of more than the latrine. It was also a method. Pathak saw how the aid and grant-making world worked. Bud­gets and donor cycles are fixed. They can be withdrawn after a few years with little notice. Pathak decided that Sulabh would not accept grants. It would make sanitation a business that paid for itself.

It doesn’t sound radical but it was. In the 1970s, development experts were convinced that poor people wouldn’t pay for sanitation. Since then, this has been proven to be nonsense. Poor people pay up to ten times more for water—from water gangsters or private tankers— than a resident with municipal water supply. UK regulations concluded that spending more than 3 percent of the household budget on water was an indicator of hardship. But poor people in Uganda, for example, spend 22 percent of their budget on it.

Pathak thought people would pay, so he developed a range of models for all budgets and tastes. His social service organization would be nonprofit, but it would be a business. This thinking was new.

***

Gourisankar Ghosh was working as an engineer in India in the 1970s before he went on to head the UN’s Water Supply and Sanitation Col­laborative Council. Ghosh thinks Pathak and Sulabh have been revolutionary. “In the 1970s in India no one was talking about sanitation. Worldwide not even the World Bank was addressing it. People were suspicious of Pathak because he’s a self-made man. So he did it on his own, without UNDP or state support. He’s a visionary and a pathmaker.”

This may explain the messianic aura that surrounds Pathak. He is treated with insistent subservience by his staff, and described in a history of Sulabh as possessing “awesome innocence” and “manners which are compelling.” Powerful men in India are shown deference as a matter of course, but a British sanitation expert who knows Pathak expresses astonishment at “the amazing cult of personality around him.” In a foreword to the Sulabh history, Pathak writes that “I do not claim the eminence of Faraday, who invented dynamo, Lazslo Biro, inventor of ball-pen, . . . Einstein, or that of unknown Assyrian who invented the wheels, or of the Caveman who ‘invented’ fire but one thing is common between me and those great names: none of them was an engineer.”

Neither was Pathak. To promote his Easy Latrine, he had to battle for thirty years with suspicious World Bank–influenced engineers who intended to carry on installing what they’d always installed: unsuitable waterborne treatment plants that were prohibitively expensive to run for Indian municipalities and whose maintenance required levels of expertise that rarely existed. Nonetheless, Pathak’s efforts have won awards. In 1992, he became the first man to take the topic of latrines to the Vatican, where Pope John Paul II awarded him a St. Francis of Assisi medal. In 1995, he was the Limca Records (the Indian Guinness) Man of the Year. Despite this, writes the Indian journalist S. P. Singh, Pathak remains “indifferent to fame and fortune,” seeking only to “res­cue scavengers from the tyranny of the social system in which one man’s excreta is another man’s headload.”

***

This may be true. But causes cost money, and the Easy Latrine didn’t bring in enough revenue to cover Sulabh’s running expenses. He decided to build public toilets, too.

In the 1970s, public facilities in India were a rare sight. The few in existence were squalid and offered little advantage to defecating on the pavement outside, so people often chose the street instead. Pathak had an idea that was simple, new, and apparently doomed. If people had a clean toilet with water and light, they’d probably be willing to pay for it. “People laughed at me,” he recalls. “They said, in Bihar, people don’t pay for bus tickets and rail tickets. Why would they pay for toilets?”

But his negotiation skills served him well, because in 1973 the first Sulabh public toilet opened in Patna, the state capital of Bihar. It had water, electricity, and round-the-clock attendants. Sulabh charged one rupee for toilet use, and urinals for men were free (women could also urinate for free, but they have to specify their needs to the caretaker). A wash cost two rupees. In the first day, Pathak says, five hundred people used it.

Gourisankar Ghosh remembers working in 1980 in an office in Kolkata that overlooked a lake. “One morning I saw a lot of activity and someone told me someone was building a toilet. I little realized that people had no public toilet. I never thought it would work but once it was built I saw women and men coming to use it. I was amazed. It cost one-fortieth of a dollar and they were using it happily.”

Sulabh’s concept of pay-per-use was not new—a similar government program had been tried and failed several years earlier. The business model was. Instead of funding toilets with government grants, Sulabh approached authorities and municipalities and suggested something different: if the authority paid for the cost of constructing the toilet and provided the land, Sulabh would run it for a set number of years and keep the profits. The business model was an attractive one to municipal authorities who, back then, could not be bothered with sanitation. “Before, no one wanted to know,” says Pathak. “In the beginning, we couldn’t find anyone willing to tender to construct toilets. The upper castes wouldn’t consider it. They wouldn’t even come to meetings. Now they fight for the tenders. We have blended social reform and economic gain.”

***

In Mumbai, I take a tour of Sulabh’s public conveniences. My host is Chandra Mohan, the head of Sulabh’s Mumbai branch. Like other senior Sulabh employees, he began volunteering for Sulabh after retiring from a top business position. Other Sulabh men were high up in the civil service. Good connections help business.

We whiz through Mumbai in a white Ambassador, India’s greatest car and a vehicle that manages to feel luxurious even when it’s decrepit, for it sits its passengers high and it has lines as noble as its name. All the stops on the bathroom tour are on prime Mumbai real estate. There is a Sulabh next to Mumbai city hall and another by the Gateway of India. Sulabh also has the only establishment operating on the city’s famous Chowpatty beach. There used to be others, but Mumbai is cleaning itself up, and they were demolished for aesthetic and health reasons (they were ugly and stank). Some of Sulabh’s 750 Mumbai toilet blocks are in slum areas. “We cross-subsidize them,” says Mohan. “The ones in high-volume areas bring in money to pay for the ones in poor areas that don’t.”

He takes me to a public toilet near the headquarters of Indian Express, a prestigious weekly magazine. It is well kept and pristine, unlike many government-supplied toilets. I ask him why Sulabh has succeeded where the state has failed. “Government property is everyone’s property. Toilet stall doors are taken away overnight. People do not respect it.” They have problems in Sulabh toilets, too. In the Indian Express Sulabh, Mohan strides as usual into the ladies’ and finds several women doing their washing on the floor while a tap in the sink gushes uselessly. He chastises them. They are pavement dwellers, he tells me. They don’t know the meaning of taps or the value of water, because they’ve never had it before. The pavement dwellers are here because Sulabh gives them a free weekly pass. The women crowd around me outside to show me their ID cards. Name, occupation, the Sulabh logo of a woman carrying a headload of excreta, with a red cross over the unpalatable image, residence.

Residence? “I live near the bus shelter,” says one, and she means on the ground. “I live on that pavement over there,” says another. They are officially BPLers—Below the Poverty Line—and are entitled to rations. Their piece of pavement is usually rented from a local slumlord or gangster. At least with the Sulabh card, they can wash for free. They can get some dignity along with rice.

***

Sulabh has innovated in other ways: some Sulabh toilets also house primary schools. Others have health clinics attached. As impressive an achievement as that is—as any traveler stuck waiting for an Indian train will appreciate—Pathak is proudest of the effects his business has had on scavengers. Sixty thousand have been “liberated” as a result of Pathak’s efforts. Some are given alternative employment as cleaners in Sulabh toilet blocks. Nonetheless, a Sulabh employee tells me that hier­archies still persist. Scavengers will always be the lowliest cleaners. “The caretakers will be Brahmins, because they’re the ones collecting the money.”

Six thousand wards of scavengers have also been given education at Sulabh Public School on the Delhi campus. It provides education with a message: the intake is scavenger and non-scavenger to encourage mixing. All children learn in English because it is the language of the educated, employable Indian. Classes are also taught in Sanskrit, the school head teacher tells me, “because that is the language of the Brahmins.” Sanskrit is a shocking thing to teach a scavenger child, and therefore makes a powerful point.

Pathak tells me with pride about a program in Rajasthan, whereby twenty-eight scavenger women were given the opportunity to sell snacks for a living. It sounds a modest achievement. But even after three decades of trying to eradicate untouchability, getting an Indian to eat food prepared by a scavenger is a big deal. The Rajasthani snack women may be few, but the number is incidental. The point is that Indians will now buy food from people who used to disgust them so much, they would not touch their shadows. Even Pathak’s Sulabh colleague Mulkh Raj admits that the habit of untouchability is still formidable enough to affect his own thinking. “You can share lunch with scavengers,” he says, “but you’d never marry a scavenger girl. It’s wrong to pretend this doesn’t exist.”

Pathak’s other great achievement, in his eyes, was to make toilet talkable. “In India until few years ago,” he wrote in 2004, “nobody could imagine that any politician, bureaucrat or businessman of some standing would like to associate his name with anything even remotely connected to something as ordinary as toilet. Now things have changed and most prominent politicians (including Ministers and Chief Ministers), high-position bureaucrats and well-known businessmen readily agree and rarely decline to inaugurate the opening of public toilets in the country.” When Sulabh set up an adopt-a-scavenger system, top politicians invited scavengers into their home to share food and sponsored their education.

For Pathak, the toilet was always a means to achieve his end. He said in one interview that “Gandhi used the spinning wheel to enter families’ homes; we’re entering through the toilet.” Even his critics—of whom I find very few, despite looking—admit that he has changed Indian society. Paromita Vohra featured Pathak in her documentary about public toilet provision in Mumbai, Q2P. The film manages to be ethereal and earthy, and features a fine example of Indian humor when, during a “Take Back the Night” march, some young women looking for a public toilet ask another marcher, a middle-aged woman, whether they can pee on a certain patch of ground. “Can we sit here?” they ask. “Is it a religious place?” “Go!” says the woman. “You sit and make it religious!”

Vohra has mixed feelings about Sulabh and its “Visionary Founder.” “If the goal of Pathak is to have eliminated scavenging, then he’s failed. And I find Sulabh very paternalistic. But the guy is a Brahmin and he built the first public toilet in India. You can’t take that away from him.”

***

Nor can anyone challenge his status as the founder of the world’s best-known toilet museum. In 1994, Pathak realized that maybe not everybody shared his delight in pour-flush privies and the transformation of scavengers to snack-sellers and cleaners. He decided to “make toilets interesting.” During a visit to London’s Madame Tussaud’s, he got an idea. Why not build a museum of toilets? Letters were dispatched to all foreign embassies in Delhi, asking for information about their country’s toilet habits. The British provided a small booklet on the work of Mr. Thomas Crapper. The Counselor for Scientific and Tech­nological Affairs at the U.S. embassy could offer only the address of the American Society of Sanitary Engineering, and the suggestion that Sulabh’s idea of playing the national anthem of various nations as one approaches their toilet in the exhibit might be “something that many people might object to. A simple sign explaining the exhibit may be less controversial.”

Pathak gathered the exhibits on his global travels. The collection is impressive, but it still fits easily into a single room on the campus, next door to the biogas research lab. Replicas of historically relevant commodes, toilets, and latrines are placed alongside a microwave toilet—used in ships—and a portable privy aimed at campers. There is a French commode disguised as English books, including a Shakespeare play. “The French always used English titles for books,” says my guide, as if he can’t imagine why. In the center of the room, in a glass display case, there is a model of the Sulabh public toilet at Shirdi, supposedly the largest in the world, which has 120 toilets, 108 bathing cubicles, 28 special toilets, six dressing rooms, and 5,000 lockers, as well as a biogas system. (I later make a 10-hour round trip to spend an hour at Shirdi, and on the road wonder as usual where I will find a toilet, before I remember where I’m going.)

On the walls hang densely detailed displays relating to sanitary history. Visitors who trek out to the airport area—they are more numerous, since the museum was included in the Lonely Planet Guide to India a couple of years ago—will get an education. They can learn that the best and first flush toilets were built five millennia ago in the Indus Valley cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, and that Ben Affleck once bought Jennifer Lopez a jewel-encrusted toilet seat (though she’s now moved on to the TOTO Neorest). They can be enlightened by one poster that elucidates the Su-jok therapy devised by Korean scientist Park Jae Woo, which I will include here in a spirit of public health because it served me well during ensuing months of research in toilet-deficient places. Should the urge to defecate strike, take a pen, pencil, or blunt object and trace a line, deeply and with pressure, in a clockwise direction on the left palm or counterclockwise on the right. The urge, assures Dr. Park, “will immediately cease. You too can try sometime and feel the magic pressure in reverse order will give good relief in constipation.”

A visitors’ book collects comments, some with expected humor, some serious. Jack Sim of the WTO has left his compliments. Nana Ziesche thought it “such a big history part never taught in school. What a pity.” Swiss tourist Jonathan Hecker offered his congratulations because “this is exactly what we need to pull sanitation out of its dirty corner.”

Pathak intends to keep pulling. He has plans for a University of Sanitation. He will also amend the nonprofit model and accept grants. There is still much work to do and Sulabh needs help to do it. Despite the organization’s achievements, half a million Indians are still cleaning dry latrines. “Seen in that context,” Pathak tells me, “Sulabh has achieved almost nothing.” A Sulabh colleague is also gloomy. “Sanitation is a gigantic problem,” he says. “The world needs a thousand Sulabhs, a hundred Dr. Pathaks. What Sulabh does is a drop in the ocean.”

Pathak prefers to see things more brightly. “We are still at the beginning of the beginnings,” he once said. “We are a candle in the dark.” And the dark doesn’t frighten him. This is the man who transformed teenage rebellion into a toilet revolution, and overturned profoundly held beliefs about purity and pollution in the process. “It’s totally amazing,” he tells me by way of a farewell. “Scavengers used to be afraid of our shadows. But look. The earth and sky can meet.”

From The Big Necessity, copyright 2008 Rose George.

***

We need your help to get to 5,000 Longreads Members.

Join Longreads now and help us keep going.

 

The staff of Longreads.
Get the Longreads Weekly Email

Sign up to receive the Top 5 Longreads of the week, delivered every Friday.