Dr Bindeshwar Pathak has dedicated his whole life to eradicate scavenging in India and implement proper sanitation in the country. There is still lot of work to do, but in Alwar, Rajhastan, there will be no scavengers by the end of the year. Marie Naudascher interviewed this down to earth and ambitious gandhian in the Sulabh center, New Delhi.
How did the idea to eradicate scavenging in India come to your mind ?
I have always been deeply inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas. From October 2nd 1968, the date anniversary of his birth, I took the vow to fulfill Gandhi’s ideal to restore human dignity of the Untouchables who were cleaning night soil. In 1915, Gandhi settled in India after a long stay in South Africa with a strong will to liberate the Untouchables. He wanted to clean India first, then to get the independance. He once said "I may not be born again, but if it happens I would like to be born a scavenger".
As a sociologist, you have been living with scavengers to know how they live and work before starting the Sulabh movement.
Yes, I have been living three months among the scavengers of Jagjevam Ram colony, in Bihar. I lived there as a scavenger so I could see how to help them the most. I come from a Brahmin family. When I was a child, around 6 years old, I touched an Untouchable, just to know what would happen. I was then forced to swallow cow dung, cow urine and water from Ganga to be purified. It was a huge scandal in my family. But this issue kept bothering me ever since. Why Untouchables ? What have they been doing to deserve such a humiliating fate ?
Have you faced any problems from your relatives or family for leading such a movement ?
Of course, my father-in-law was very angry with me. I told him I had started turning over a page of history. I did not know if it would be successful, but I had to give it a try. Today, some people are jealous of our success. People think I am wealthy, which is wrong. We have taken loans from the bank. And all political parties are supporting Sulabh.
Have you always followed Gandhi’s path in your work ?
Yes, it is very important as an NGO not to criticise anyone. We have never had confrontations with anyone or the government. Through peacefull means, I saw the problem, then worked on an alternative solution. First, I developped the two-pit system technology myself. Then I went from house to house to discuss with people and try to convince them, little by little. They were reluctant at first, but I was able to make them listen to me. I explained the toilets they had stinks, bring mosquitoes… in 1973, someone in Bihar accepted to have my toilets, then people began to trust me.
What are you the most proud of ?
I think we succedded in changing the way people see the sanitary issues and the Untouchables.
In India, economic prosperity can be achieved but changing the mind of people is very hard. Now, people talk about toilets and this is just the beginning. Liberating all the scavengers has been made possible thanks to the technology.
From where do you get your strengh ?
First, you have to be thoroughly interested and passionate about your subject. Moreover, I believe in all the religions, I go through all the holy books. I believe in humanity. Jésus said that if you look at the downtrodden, you are closer to Go