Toilets: Ek Prem Kahani, or, the story of Bindeshwar Pathak and Sulabh Shauchalayas
A personal account of the man who pioneered pay toilets for the Indian public in 1969–70
Bindeshwar Pathak (1943–2023) passed away on Independence Day at the age of 80.
He was a soft-spoken man with a ready enough smile; and he was already a celebrity in the 1990s, having been honoured with a Padma Vibhushan in 1991.
His pioneering campaign to set up pay toilets in the 1970s had drawn widespread attention. Following the Gandhi centenary celebrations that began in 1969, while Pathak was working in the Arrah municipality, he set up the Sulabh Shauchalaya Sangsthan in 1970, spurred on by generous government grants.
Soon a chain of public urinals and toilets came up in Patna and other cities of Bihar.
Pathak caused a sensation by also offering to light up the sprawling Gandhi Maidan in the middle of Patna with biogas. Laudatory reports in newspapers claimed that human excreta collected in the public toilets were being utilised to produce the biogas. There was excitement as people debated the endless prospect of generating ‘renewable energy’. Jokes also made the rounds, as ministers vied with each other to inaugurate Sulabh Shauchalayas (literally, 'affordable toilets') even as critics carped that the biogas was a ruse, that it was diesel generators that were actually lighting up the Gandhi Maidan.
I suggested to Pathak that if it was that simple to produce biogas from human excreta, he should be able to solve the acute energy shortage in the Bihar villages and electrify them.
He patiently explained why that was not possible.
It would require a steady supply of a huge amount of human excreta daily to sustain the production, he pointed out, and in the Bihar villages, it would never happen because the different castes would never agree to shit in the same toilet as others. I am still not sure if he was serious or just pulling my leg.
I must confess that I had developed a deep dislike for him on our first meeting, when he turned up at the Times of India office in Patna and tried to present me with a bottle of perfume he had brought from Paris. I politely declined. A while later, he asked what my wife was doing. When told that she was teaching physics in a school, he immediately offered a job for her at four times the salary she was drawing.
There were other reasons for my unease.
For a social worker, he lived life king-size. He would file defamation cases against journalists at the drop of a hat and demand a written apology. In many cases, the journalists apologised partly to avoid lengthy litigation and also partly because they had no evidence to prove that he was cutting corners, defrauding the government or guilty of financial irregularities.
When they did tender an apology, on several occasions the Sulabh Shauchalaya founder had the apology published on the front page of local newspapers as paid advertisements. Which social worker could afford to advertise, at least in those days?
He was a bit of an enigma too because bureaucrats and United Nations officials always spoke highly of him and lauded his work. Many of us journalists were suspicious and sceptical, pointing out the preponderance of open defecation all over the state and the poor maintenance and lack of cleanliness in many of the public toilets. Urinals were built often without access to running water and the stench made it impossible for people to use them.
Pathak himself seemed to be travelling most of the time, often to receive awards. Every time he flew off to Hyderabad or Paris for another such ceremony, he would generously pay for friends and friendly journalists to travel with him and host them in these cities.
But his work was expanding at a fast clip. Pathak set up the Toilet Museum at Palam in New Delhi, which has fascinating installations and records the evolution of sanitation.
He once led a large group of sanitary workers into the dining room of Hotel Maurya, one of the two three-star hotels in Patna at the time. The ‘event’ grabbed national headlines.
On another occasion he announced that the elites in Delhi would be hosting a sanitation worker at home, feeding them and then visiting in their homes. The Times of India editor-in-chief Dileep Padgaonkar was among them, along with several other newspaper editors, and the stunt received a lot of publicity.
Pathak would also offer ‘employment’ to retired bureaucrats and out-of-work journalists. One such journalist who was beholden to him recalled that he had called on Bindeshwar Pathak to half-heartedly ask if he had any job for him to tide over his suspension (those were the days when journalists were suspended for making glaring mistakes). Pathak, without blinking, scribbled a name and a phone number and handed over the piece of paper with some cash. “You will need the money to travel to Delhi. Call this person there and start working,” he had said.
Several months later, after the journalist had been reinstated, he asked Pathak why he had offered him that job so quickly, seemingly with hardly any thought. Pathak, so the journalist claims, said that he met job seekers every day and every time, he asked himself if the visitor would offer a job to him. If he felt the visitor would, he did not ask any further questions!
My abiding memory of the Sulabh founder is, however, from the time I met him after one of his visits to China in the 1980s.
I had gone there with the intention of conducting a hostile interview and I did ask what I thought were all inconvenient questions. He answered them all with great tact and politeness. When I finally got up to leave, he insisted I have a cup of tea with him and look at the photographs he had taken in China. I sat back with great reluctance, but what he showed me was truly amazing.
He had four thick albums on his China visit, crammed with several hundred photographs. None of them was of the Great Wall of China or of himself. Every photograph, instead, was of a toilet—I saw toilets in towns and in villages, on farms and in fields. He explained the cultural context and showed me photographs of farmers dumping their own excreta into the fields and using their feet to grind them into the soil. “Unlike us, they do not consider it dirty and realise that excreta can be used profitably,” he added.
It was a lesson in humility, keen scholarship and his single-minded focus on "sanitation and shit". His work and contribution will have to be evaluated by people more competent and knowledgeable. But he was undoubtedly a fascinating personality grappling with a gigantic issue.
I wish I had spent more time discussing Swachh Bharat with him, a mission that now often looks like Mission Impossible.