Forum for Indian Journalists on Education, Environment, Health & Agriculture
A South Asian Initiative on Development Communication
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak


Sulabh Sanitation & Social Reform Movement

Q. Tell us about the philosophy of Sulabh.
A. Sulabh International Social Service is a non-profit voluntary social organization and was founded in 1970 with a commitment to the Gandhian ideology of emancipation of scavengers. Over the years, Sulabh has been working for removal of untouchability and social discrimination against human scavengers. Sulabh has been recognized for achieving successes in cost-effective sanitation, liberation of scavengers, social transformation of society, prevention of environmental pollution, and development of non-conventional sources of energy. Our strategy for liberation of Balmikis through the Sulabh movement consists of a mixed package of technology, rehabilitation, with alternative employment and social reform. The Sulabh approach to restore human dignity to Balmikis has five distinct stages: i) Liberation ii) Rehabilitation iii)   Vocational training  iv) Proper education of next generation  v)  Social elevation.
Q. Tell us about the Sulabh public toilets.
A. Provision of Sulabh public toilet complexes at public places and in slums on “pay and use” basis is an important activity of Sulabh in the field of community health and hygiene and environmental sanitation. We have constructed public toilet complexes in different parts of the country, where maintenance is provided round the clock. These complexes are located at public places like bus stands, hospitals, markets etc. and in the slums. For construction, operation and maintenance of these complexes, we play the role of a catalyst and a partner between the official agencies and users of the toilet complexes. When facility for bathing is also provided with the community toilets, and above all if they are kept clean, people have no hesitation in paying a nominal charge for the use. For washing, hands soap powder is provided to users. Children and poor persons are exempted from such charge. The system of operation and maintenance of community toilets evolved by Sulabh has proved a boon for the local bodies in their endeavour to keep the towns clean and improve the environment. This is a unique example of partnership of local authorities, non-governmental organization, and the community.
Q. What is your view on the initiative by Prime Minister on Clean India Mission.
A. After Mahatma Gandhi, Narendra Modi is the first tall leader to wield the broom. His clarion call has stirred the imagination of the nation. Prime Minister’s initiative has brought about a paradigm shift in our views on cleanliness. In no time, this erstwhile innocuous issue, has critically significant in our discourses, and lives. I am extremely happy and feel vindicated.
Q. Do you think the task is daunting and what is your recommendation?
A. Of course this is a gigantic task and each one of us must commit ourselves to this as I believe by a little mind you can’t get an empire. I have attempted to rather simplify this. We need an estimated 11.5 cr toilets to cover the entire country. There is a need to create a pool of 50,000 youth who should be trained in this. Give 13 villages to one boy each and he would be able to construct about 3000 toilets in 5 years. At Re 20,000 per toilet, we shall need an estimated Re 2.66 lakh cr which should be generated with a mix of government subsidy, bank loans, beneficiaries contributions and donor agencies funding. We need change makers who can be missionaries of sanitation in India.
Q. You also have a system of generating biogas from public toilets. Please tell us.
A. Recycling and use of human excreta for biogas generation is an important way to get rid of health hazards from human excreta, besides promoting use of biogas for cooking, lighting and electricity generation. Biogas digesters, when attached to public toilet complex, recycle human waste into biogas. The biogas from public toilets has multiple benefits – improving sanitation, community health and hygiene, dignity to women and girls. We invented an efficient design of biogas plant linked with public toilets. Under the system only human excreta with flush water is allowed to flow into biogas plant for anaerobic digestion. For biogas generation no manual handling of excreta at any stage is required. Sulabh has installed 200 biogas plants in the public toilets all over the country. Production of biogas from public toilets and recycling and reuse of effluent through simple and convenient method is a major breakthrough in the field of sanitation and community health. The biogas produced is used for cooking, lighting mantle lamps, and electricity generation. Cooking is the most convenient use of biogas. Recently Sulabh has modified the genset which earlier required 20% diesel and 80% biogas. Today, it does not require diesel and runs on 100% biogas. This has made electricity generation from biogas more sustainable.  At our head office in New Delhi, we eat food made out of our biogas plant installed in the campus.
Q. Why have we lagged so much in sanitation?
A. Human excreta is the cause of many enteric diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, infectious hepatitis, hookworm etc. Studies reveal that over 50 kinds of infections can be transmitted from diseased persons to healthy ones by various direct/indirect routes from human excreta that cause nearly 80% of the diseases in developing countries. In India out of a total population of 1210.2 million, according to 2011 census, 814 million people lack basic sanitation facilities resulting in high mortality and morbidity. Low sanitation coverage in India is primarily due to insufficient motivation/awareness of people and lack of affordable sanitation technology. People are generally not aware of environment benefits of sanitation and it is still not a felt need for them, resulting in absence of people’s participation in sanitation programmes. Non-availability of a choice of toilet designs, area specific technologies, inadequate supporting delivery systems and absence of trained masons, skilled workers and technical manpower are also reasons for low coverage. By tradition, the Indian society and culture values personal hygiene, but gives little importance to clean and healthy community environment. Human excreta is regarded as the most hated object and anything connected with the latrine is considered so defiling that one is supposed to take a bath immediately after coming out of the toilet and before going into the kitchen– due to psychological and religious taboos. Sanitation is, therefore, regarded as a matter of individual initiative and not a collective obligation of the community. In this socio-cultural background, the environmental sanitation has sadly been given the lowest priority.
Q. What are the key challenges?
A. In developed world, the standard practice for sanitary disposal of human waste is sewerage. Due to financial constraints and exorbitant maintenance and operational costs, sewerage is not the answer at present to solve the problem of human waste management in India. Sewerage was first introduced in London in 1850, followed by New York in 1860. Calcutta in India was the next city in the world to have this privilege in 1870, yet out of over 7,933 towns/cities in India only 929 have the sewerage system and that too partially. There are only 160 towns having sewerage treatment plant but there is no such facility in the remaining 769 towns. In the developing countries neither the government nor the local authorities, or the beneficiaries can bear the total capital expenditure and operation and maintenance costs of sewerage system. Moreover, it requires skilled persons and good management for operation and maintenance. It requires over 2 gallons of water to clean human excreta. Do we build huge dams and irrigation systems to bring in water only to flush it down into an expensive sewage system, all ending up polluting our rivers and ponds? Most of the rivers are heavily polluted due to untreated domestic sewage load from the cities. This has lead to deterioration of groundwater aquifers and community health. The septic tank system is also expensive and requires 12-14 litre of water for flushing. There is shortage of drinking water in almost all urban areas; hence water has to be conserved. Septic tank has other problems like periodic cleaning and disposal of sludge. Inadequate effluent disposal is a source of foul smell, mosquito breeding and health hazards.
Q. How do you foresee the future?
A. I have been at it for years now and have contributed to the best of my abilities. I was driven with the passion of changing the course of history, and I thank god, I have made a considerable headway in that direction. With the Prime Minister exhorting people to make it a mission, I am certain we shall leapfrog into a new era where sanitation shall be key to our existence. I am happy and positive.
In conversation with Navneet Anand




  • P Aruna
    DC of Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu
    District Collector P Aruna of Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu
  • Nav Goel
    Deputy General Manager
    Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited

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