Volunteers Work to Free the Lowest of the Low : India: Scavengers are charged with carrying buckets of human excrement on their heads.


If Bindeswar Pathak’s long-held dream comes true--and there is evidence it might--India’s scavengers will be freed from their humiliating, caste-imposed life’s work of carrying human excrement on their heads.

About 600,000 people are directly involved in the daily collection and disposal of human waste from bucket latrines used in 6 million homes. Their lot in life, passed down from generation to generation, causes them to be shunned by the rest of Indian society.

Pathak, a 47-year-old sociologist and student of the teachings of Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, the martyred father of Indian independence, has been working with unshakable determination since 1970 to bring this sad reality to an end.

His plan has been to replace bucket latrines with clean, simple and inexpensive toilets. So far, Pathak’s Sulabh International, a nonprofit voluntary social organization employing 20,000 people, has converted about 500,000 homes, freeing some 20,000 scavengers from their traditional profession to be retrained as sweepers, drivers, tailors and carpenters.


Now, with the Indian government embarked on its own campaign to end this vocation, it is conceivable that all these individuals will be working at other jobs by the turn of the century.

“It was a dream of Mahatma Gandhi that this caste of people be liberated,” Pathak said. “Gandhi once said: ‘I may not be born again, but if it happens I will like to be born in a family of scavengers so that I may relieve them of the inhuman, unhealthy and hateful practice of carrying head loads of human excreta.’ That statement made a strong impression on me.”

Pathak was working for the Gandhi Centenary Committee in 1970 when he resigned to pursue Gandhi’s dream by founding Sulabh International.

Realizing that sewer systems and septic tanks are too expensive for most people in India--the World Health Organization says only 14% of the country’s urban population uses septic tanks--Pathak chose to promote the more affordable “pour flush” system developed in 1960.

The system has two side-by-side pits about 5 feet deep, but only one is used at a time. When the first pit is filled, it is sealed and waste is diverted to the second.

After two years, waste in the first pit has naturally converted to fertilizer. The pit can be cleaned and used again while the same process occurs in the second pit. This method can be used indefinitely.

In 1974, Pathak persuaded the government of Bihar, the poorest and least developed state in India, to allow Sulabh International to promote its system on a large scale, and over the next four years his organization constructed 25,000 toilets.

Then in 1978 a national seminar on sanitation organized by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Indian government met in New Delhi and gave its stamp of approval to the “pour flush” system, and the method became even more widely used.

A major breakthrough for Pathak in getting this simple technology more fully accepted came in 1984 when the World Bank recommended that the system be adopted in 19 countries in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

“The system has been accepted by the people and by the government,” said Pathak. “Now, the problem is to convert 6 million homes using bucket latrines that are still cleaned by scavengers.”

Part of the solution to that problem appears to be forthcoming from the New Delhi administration.

Ram Bilas Paswan, India’s union minister of labor and welfare, said that shortly after it came to power in December, the new government of Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh took up the challenge of helping free the country’s scavengers.

“After more than 40 years of independence, this system of carrying night soil on the head is just a curse on part of the nation,” Paswan said. “It is done by people belonging to a particular caste who are considered the lowest in the country, just because they work in unclean work. We have decided to abolish this system.”

Paswan said the system will be done away with in 500 Indian towns by the end of the year. Laws will be passed in the targeted communities that will require individual homeowners to install toilet facilities.

For those too poor to afford the new technology, Paswan said the government will help financially.

Meanwhile, a second hurdle to be overcome is general social acceptance by higher caste Indians of scavengers once they are schooled in other professions.

“The question is if the scavengers are liberated, will the stigma of their caste status go away? The answer is no unless people of higher castes sit and dine with them,” Pathak said.

So Pathak has been persuading those of the highest caste level, the Brahmans--Pathak, himself, is a Brahman--to enter temples, worship and to dine with those of the lowest caste level, the scavengers.

“We’ve done this at three places in India--in New Delhi, at Patna and at Udaipur in Rajasthan--and all of these attempts have been successful,” Pathak said.