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The Toilet Man

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak tours Kolkata's Durga Puja with the widows of Vrindavan.
Sandip Roy
Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak tours Kolkata's Durga Puja with the widows of Vrindavan.

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A few years ago I met a group of grandmotherly women who had come to Kolkata to see the city’s biggest annual festival Durga Puja.
They were happy and excited like schoolgirls on an outing, singing devotional songs.
But their stories were heartbreaking

MD1: Shontan boley jaake paallam boro korlam shey amakey taariye chharlo,

Manu Dasi was 85 and says her own son turned her out as a burden. All these women were widows discarded by family, sent to a temple town where they lived by begging and singing hymns.

One man gave them a home. And organised this trip. Dasi said he was like her mother and father and son, all in one.

MD2: Shontan nbie shontan peyechhi maa ne ma pyechi, baba nei baba peyechi. Emon ek mahapurhs.

That man was Dr. Bindeswar Pathak who said the widows stories moved him. They all wanted to die.

BP1: All were crying weeping and told miseries of their lives and wanted to die. Everybody.

Dr Pathak died last month at 80. But to the world he was not known for his philanthropy with widows. He was famous as India’s Toilet Man

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata

In 1970 Dr Bindeshwar Pathak founded Sulabh International a nongovernmental organisation whose job was to give India something it needed urgently. Clean toilets. A 2017 report by Water Aid said if all the women and girls who lacked access to toilet in India stood in a queue they would circle the earth more than 4 times.

Dr Pathak invented a technology to make cheap eco friendly twin pit, pour flush toilets, that could convert the waste into good manure. They didn’t need manual scavengers whose job was to remove that waste by hand.

BP2: most importunely we build toilets inside the houses. Which I myself invented sulabh technology for disposal of human waste

And he started building and maintaining pay for use public toilets as well

BP3: Also second work we do is contstacut and maintain public toilets. Also we clean hospitals and government buildings

It seemed odd that an organisation that built toilets was also looking after widows.

But the stories are actually connected. It is his protest against social ills.

BP4: Sulabh apart form sanitation is protest movement

Dr Pathak’s journey started when as a boy he touched the sari of a Dalit woman, regarded by his high caste Brahmin family as untouchable. His grandmother made him drink panchgavya - a concoction with curd, milk, ghee, cow urine and cow dung to purify himelf. He never forgot that. He revered his faith but recognised its dark spots.

BP5: dare I say there are some dark spots one is untouchability one is widownhood.

Both are about social stigma.

BP6: Social stigma both are there.

Dr. Pathak said even Mahatma Gandhi fought to end untouchability and create a clean India.

BP7: Gandhi also said I want clean India first, independnece later on.

Dr Pathak said every religion has missionaries., He was the missionary of sanitation for almost 50 years.

BP8: Every mission has misisonaries. Islam Christian missionary. Buddhish. Here in sanitation is is lacking. I am before you beacuse I have bene working in this field for 46 yearsB.

He had to persuade goverments. one politician advised him to take money for work rather than get a grant and get tied up in red tape.

BP9: he swrote on the file to give work to Sulabh not to give grant.

That first assignment earned him about 10 US dollars. By the time Dr Pathak died this year at the age of 80, Sulabh had built 1.3 million household toilets and more than 10,000 public toilets and thousands of public toilet complexes.

In his school toilets are all cleaned by the teachers and students not manual scavengers because that’s what Gandhi demanded in his ashrams.Gandhi said India could not just worry about feeding its people. It had to worry about their sanitation. Pathak says sanitation is literally more pressing.

BP10: What I say toilet is most important thing in life. Gandhi said exit of food is as important as intake. I say no, Gandhi the exit of food is more important than intake. For intake u can wait but not for exit

And not just for the poor. If you are a foreign tourist in India these Sulabh toilets are a godsend. You pay a small fee and get access to a clean toilet. In some ways they are as important a landmark as India’s many monuments, a mission that needs all the missionaries it can muster.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW