Dr Bindeshwar Pathak remains the lone warrior combating the scourge of manual scavenging
There have been many admirers of Mahatma Gandhi, and many more interpreters of his ideas. But very few dared to implement any of Gandhi’s ideas especially the basic one about sanitation. One of the radical moves which Gandhi undertook when he was in South Africa was to take up cleaning the latrines. He realised that you cannot preach until you practice it yourself. He practised what he preached. As a matter of fact, this is what had Gandhi stand apart from all the social reformers and political leaders. Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh Sanitation & Social Service Reforms, is one of the rare people who had literally followed in Gandhian footsteps. It is more than a coincidence that Dr Pathak set upon his work with manual scavengers and then moved on to create an appropriate sanitation mechanism through his two-pit toilet in the Gandhi centenary year of 1969 and he has steadfastly kept at it for half-a-century.
As a young educated man who belonged to the traditional upper caste (Brahmin) of Hindu society, Dr Pathak plunged into radical social action by physically carrying the night soil. It was the purest Gandhian act. No one of the scores and hundreds of Gandhians did that. Somewhere, Dr Pathank broke the lip-service that the whole country was paying to the Father of the Nation for decades after Independence and took a major practical step.
It would have been easier for Dr Pathak to have engaged in manual scavenging for some time and moved on. But he did not. He thought of the problem, and he looked for a solution and found one as well. He was determined to end the practice of manual scavenging. That is why, he developed the two-pit toilet system, and he set up an organisation to build toilets to end the scourge of open defecation, while working on the issue of manual scavenging.
Open defecation could only be ended through the building of toilets because in most places it was the non-availability of toilets that led to open defecation. And he set a shining example of what a non-governmental organisation (NGO) could do to address a major social problem in the country. Again, he proved to be a pioneer in the field because there are thousands of NGOs in the country doing valuable work in various fields, none of them had paid attention to the one social problem that was staring everyone in the face. It is also interesting that no other NGO had joined Sulabh International, which has been set up for the purpose, in the important task of building toilets or providing public toilet facilities. It is a work that is being pursued in many developing countries of the world with the help of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank, and many other European and American governmental and non-governmental aid organisations. Sulabh International remains the lone organisation working in the field. Government programmes for building toilets began under the UPA2 and it has been transformed into the Swachh Bharat Movement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But Dr Pathak and Sulabh International have been at it for decades now.
Dr Pathak makes no secret of his Gandhian inspiration and his commitment to fulfill Gandhi’s social goal of removing the stigma of untouchability attached to the lives of manual scavengers. Gandhi was quite clear that political freedom had no meaning until it is followed by freedom from exploitation at the social and economic level. Dr Pathak’s mission takes the Gandhian revolution to outs logical goal by ending manual scavenging and creating open defecation free villages.
Dr Pathak had adopted two enlightened solutions to open defecation and to the issue of manual scavenging. To end open defecation, he set out on building toilets, and in cities and towns he created public toilets and evolved the pay-and-use system, by making people pay a nominal amount for using the facility. It is a sound principle of market economics that there are no free lunches. In a vast country like India, there has to be a sustainable system of maintaining a civic facility, and it is only possible when people pay for the facility.
The more radical act of Dr Pathak has been the conversion of former manual scavengers into high caste Brahmins. Converting from one caste to another in a rigidly hierarchical Hindu social system is well-nigh impossible, and this is especially so when the change is from a lower rung in the caste structure to the higher one. But this is precisely what Dr Pathak did in the face of an indifferent and unchanging Hindu society. Dr Pathak had realised that it would not be sufficient to end manual scavenging because the former manual scavengers would still carry the stigma. The only way to wipe off the stigma is to make them into Brahmins. It is a bold social remedy which had been rarely tried. It is revolutionary idealism at its best.
Dr Pathak remains the torch-bearer of the Gandhian legacy in its true and idealistic sense.
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