A journey took a turn
I was en route to Sagar University (in Madhya Pradesh) to do my MSc in criminology. Due to a chance meeting with an acquaintance at a halt at Hajipur rail junction (in Bihar), my journey took a turn. The advocate-acquaintance convinced to me join a R600-a-month job as a secretary at a society in Patna, instead of doing my Master’s which would have got me a lectureship paying R250 a month at that time. Abandoning the idea of an MSc at that time I landed in Patna only to discover that the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee had no opening. After much persuasion by my acquaintance, the society general secretary, GS, (they knew each other) kept me as a translator without pay. After four months, I was appointed publicity in-charge.
Liberation of scavengers
Later, I was transferred to the scavenger liberation cell in 1969. This was a turning point. One day, I told the general secretary, “I am from a Brahmin family. As a child I once touched an untouchable woman out of curiosity to see if anything would change in me. My grandmother made a hue and cry when she saw me do that. She made me swallow cow dung and drink cow’s urine and Ganges water. Unless we give them an alternative to bucket toilets, which are cleaned manually, (the situation won’t change).” He said, “I see light in you.”
I lived with scavenger families in Bettiah, Champaran, to know about their culture, mores, lives. My father as well as my father-in-law were angry. The Brahmin community too hurled insulting words at me.
One day, I was going to Bettiah, I saw a bull attack a boy. People rushed to save him but somebody shouted that the boy belonged to a scavenger family, which stopped others in their tracks. I and a friend of mine took him to a hospital but he died. In the hospital, I vowed to fulfill the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi to restore the rights and dignity of untouchable scavengers and integrate them into the mainstream.
The first spark
I was sitting in a Delhi restaurant when I overheard two persons talking about a man in Kasturba Gram, near Indore, using night soil and dung to produce biogas. It took me 15 years to perfect this (process). In 1980, our first biogas plant started and in 1983, it lit the first streetlight in Patna.
To date, Sulabh has built 1.2 million individual toilets (for families) in the country and about 8,000 public toilets in India, some in Bhutan, and five in Afghanistan (Kabul).
The first cheque
The first cheque I received was for Rs 500 from the Ara municipality. Today, our annual budget is R150 crore to R160 crore.
As Sulabh is a technology-oriented endeavour, have I ever felt inadequate or challenged due to my non-science credentials? I say, never repent in life.
Application of mind is more important than knowledge. You can borrow knowledge but you have to apply it. For instance, Raja Ramanna (nuclear physicist and former Rajya Sabha member) helped me with a UV radiation chamber (in our biogas set-up).
Honesty and integrity are very important in life. Live with dignity. Ethics and morality should be your weapon. If you have lost this path, sooner or later you’ll be in jail. You should also have a passion and work hard. You’ll have to make painstaking efforts to succeed. Vision, mission, commitment, capability, efficiency and patience combined together can make you successful.
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak Interviewed by Rahat Bano