The Sanitation Messiah and Renaissance Man joins a rare historic few to be thus honoured by New York
Call him ‘Sanitation Messiah’, ‘Renaissance Man’, or even the spiritual grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. But at the end of the day, he’s simply Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement, social activist and reformer. The Padma Bhushan recipient now joins the list of those who have been honoured in the US for their signal contribution to humanity. April 14 has now been designated as ‘Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak Day’ by the Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, who last year declared: “...I, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of the city of New York, do hereby proclaim Thursday, April 14, 2016, the city of New York as: Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak Day...”
At a reception in the city on that day, Blasio lauded Dr. Pathak for “his outstanding work to improve health and hygiene and moving the world forward.” Pathak also featured in the New York Times, which in an article titled ‘Untouchables gain the help of Brahmin’, hailed him as a “full time crusader against the humiliations of untouchability”. His contribution to help eradicate the inhuman practice of scavenging is clearly seen as unparalleled.
Dr. Pathak was also honoured by the prestigious Harvard Club, with the event organisers describing him as a “great humanitarian” who, for decades, had enhanced the quality of life for millions. A citation awarded to him said his leadership is an example for all to follow. Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi once described Dr. Pathak as the spiritual son of Mahatma Gandhi. Dr. Pathak’s list of honours also includes the Stockholm Water Prize and the New York Global Leaders Dialogue Humanitarian Award, which cited him for being a pioneer in advocating for human rights in India by campaigning for social reform, and developing innovative and environment-friendly sanitation technologies. Consequently, his efforts led to a major change in the quality of life of millions, increasing their education and employment opportunities.
Upon receiving the honour in New York, Dr. Pathak to recalled an incident involving a Dalit boy in his home state of Bihar, which not only moved and saddened him, but also put him on his present path. He decided that the stigma of untouchability must be eradicated through, not so much legislation, but social acceptance. Today, Sulabh, which engages nearly 50,000 people, has built nearly 1.5 million household and 8,500 public toilets. An estimated 20 million people use these toilets daily. Sulabh is leading a massive movement to discourage manual clearing of human waste, a job traditionally done by Dalits. It has developed the ‘Sulabh Shauchalaya System’ (a low-cost, two-pit toilet technology that uses a litre of water), and has spent more than four decades trying to persuade people to make and use toilets in their homes.
Dr. Pathak says he learns something new every time he meets people who are using Sulabh toilets. He believes that defecating in the open has its roots in cultural practices. Old Hindu texts like the Devi Puran advocate shauch (defecation) as far away from the house as possible. Muslims, who came in as rulers, had manual scavengers to clean up after them so although they had toilets, there was no need for them to incorporate a system which did not require manual cleaning. “Stopping defecation in the open will not only mean better health for people, but would be an important factor in curtailing rapes in rural India,” argues Dr. Pathak. He said this was the reason why he decided to build 106 toilets, one in every house, in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. A keen observer of social norms which has made him the reformer that he is, Pathak also has the qualities of a scientist and an engineer. He is also an administrator and institution builder, someone who, through conviction and force of personality, has turned the page on India’s long history of untouchability, social discrimination and open defecation. He has utilised his talents to empower the depressed classes, and improve community health, hygiene and environmental sanitation. Through his endeavours, he is fulfilling the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.
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