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'There is a connection between rape and absence of toilets'

July 15, 2014 10:15 IST

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International'I had been to a village in Haryana. One woman who had four daughters-in-law and three daughters, told me that she had to be awake the whole night to take each of them, one by one to the fields.'

'I am not saying all rapes are because of lack of toilets. 20 to 30 percent of rape cases happen because of the lack of toilets.'

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder, Sulabh International, on how India should go about building toilets for all its people in this exclusive interview with Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak can be described as the greatest social reformer of contemporary India, having worked with the most deprived class in India, the scavengers.

He joined the Bhangi-Mukti (scavengers' liberation) cell of the Bihar Gandhi centenary celebrations committee in 1968. Soon after that, he travelled throughout India, living with scavenger families as part of his PhD research.

In 1970, he founded the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation that works to promote human rights, sanitation, waste management, etc. With around 50,000 volunteers, it is said to be the largest NGO in India. Sulabh toilets have changed the social condition of many poor Indians.

When two teenage girls were gang-raped and murdered in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, Dr Pathak said he would write to the prime minister explaining how rapes could be controlled by building toilets for women as they are most vulnerable while defecating in the open.

In this exclusive telephone interview with Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com, Dr Pathak spoke about the connection between rape, lack of toilets in rural areas and safety of women, and his plans for building toilets in rural India.

Why is sanitation not a priority in India, especially in rural India?

First is the cultural factor. Why I say cultural factor is because if you look at the Devi Puran, it says nobody should defecate near human habitation. It says people should defecate in a pit filled with garden leaves and they should fill the pit again with garden leaves. This cultural taboo still continues for Hindus living in rural areas.

The second reason is the tropical climate. Had ours been a cold climate, there would have been some toilet facility inside the house. If you look at the houses in Srinagar, you see some sort of toilet inside the house.

Third, in villages, earlier we had bushes and trees where a person can hide herself while defecating. Because of this, the practice of defecating in the open continued for centuries. During the Puranic period, toilets came into existence in India and those who were involved in carrying the excreta and cleaning the toilets became the untouchables. Both practices started in the Puranic period itself.

Is poverty one reason why rural India never gave importance to sanitation?

Not at all. I will tell you about my ancestral house in Bihar which was built in the 1900s. It was a very big one with every facility inside and outside the house including a well to draw water, but it didn't have a toilet inside.

You mean the toilet was outside the house?

No, there was no toilet at all. My mother, grandmother, aunties and sisters... all used to go out in the open to defecate. There is no link between toilet and poverty.

What about hygiene when people defecate in the open?

Earlier, the population was very thin in the villages. So, they never used to feel the stink and the air did not get polluted. So, they never connected defecating in the open with lack of hygiene.

Now, many know that if you put your feet on the same place where somebody had defecated, you can get bacterial infection and the bacteria can go straight to your stomach and can give you hook worm, round worm and severe diarrhoea.

In today's India, do you see any connection between literacy, education and sanitation?

There is (a connection). Even if you give some money to an educated person to defecate in the open, he or she will not do it.

Why I asked the question was, in a state like Kerala, you don't see people defecating in the open. There was a story in the newspapers about a Kerala woman getting married to a man from Haryana and she refusing to go there until they built a toilet inside the house.

The story is true. In fact, I have awarded a few women for standing up like this. One was from Madhya Pradesh and the others from Gorakhpur and Patna. They left their husbands' house and went to their maternal home as there was no toilet in their husbands' house.

In the villages, it is an insult to the in-laws' family if a girl leaves the house to their mother's house for want of toilets.

I got toilets constructed in their houses and awarded those women for revolting. It needed courage to revolt like that.

In 1870, the British brought the sewage system to India, first to Kolkata. In the last 144 years, only 1,600 cities out of 7,965 have sewage facilities. When you have the sewage system, manual cleaning and open defecation will end. Mahatma Gandhi wanted to end manual cleaning, but no technology could be evolved during his lifetime.

When I joined Gandhi's centenary committee in Bihar in 1968, I was asked by the general secretary to bring human rights, dignity and respectability to the untouchables, as a tribute to Gandhi. I told him my background, 'I am a Brahmin by birth. When I touched an untouchable woman as a child, my grandmother forced me to swallow cow dung, drink urine and Ganga jal, to purify me.'

I also said, 'I was not an engineer, but a sociologist'. I asked him, how I could ask someone not to use bucket toilets? But he wanted me to do something.

That was when I decided to invent a new technology. Without a new technology, I knew I would not be able to end open defecation. But even after I developed a new technology, there was apathy on the side of the government. They did not take much interest in the technology.

Is it not a shame that even today, people defecate in the open?

It is a shame. It is a decision politicians have to make and not the bureaucrats. I will give you an example. In 1986, the government had fixed Rs 500 to be given to a person to build a toilet. They insisted that people built it with Rs 500 and not use any extra money from anywhere. This continued till 2008 with the government increasing the amount little by little up to Rs 1,500.

In 2008, I spoke to the then minister and finally the government allowed people to make the 2 pit toilets. He also raised the money and now it is Rs 10,000. That is why I feel the politicians will have to take a decision on this, but they leave everything to the bureaucrats.

Before Jairam Ramesh took over, the entire decisions on sanitation was left to the bureaucrats.

Is giving money to build toilets enough to make people aware of sanitation?

No, giving money is not enough at all. That is why from Sulabh, we go from house to house to motivate and educate people on sanitation. If they agree, we help them fill up a form to draw money to build a toilet. We build toilets and give them a guarantee.

But what the government does is, give them money. Some contractors who do not know how to build toilets take half the money and construct something that is not a real toilet.

I will give you one example. I had been to a village in Haryana. One woman who had four daughters-in-law and three daughters, told me that she had to be awake the whole night to take each of them, one by one to the fields. She also told me about a woman who had to suddenly get up when she saw a man peeping at her. After that, she had to suffer from constipation for 25 days!

After hearing the story, I saw to it that the entire village got toilets. When I found that the cost of a toilet there was Rs 15,000, I arranged a loan for Rs 12,000 and the rest of the Rs 3,000 was put in by the people. Now, every house in the village has toilets. And the women are very happy today.

You must have spoken to many women living in villages. How uncomfortable are they about defecating in the open?

They are extremely uncomfortable. Some of them weep when they start talking about it. There is no end to their sufferings.

You go from one village to another and you hear the same story everywhere. But there is a solution. That is why I gave the example of the village in Haryana.

Today, when I go there, the women are all so happy; they don't complain at all. This can be replicated in the entire country but the government has to adopt a proper methodology.

The question is, if the Sulabh model created by us is successful, why not pass this to other NGOs too so that they use it elsewhere? Sulabh cannot be there everywhere. We can train other NGOs and they can work in their own area. Everybody knows that the Sulabh model is successful.

We have found that the country needs 11.5 crore (115 million) toilets. If you train 30,000 people and ask them to take care of 25, 30 villages, in five years, we can build enough toilets for all the people.

One person in charge of 25, 30 villages for five years can motivate and educate the villagers about toilets.

More important, bank loans are necessary to build these toilets because whatever is allotted in the government budget, is not enough. There are many missing links. The way the government is approaching the issue is not right.

What are the missing links?

There is no one to go from house to house to motivate and educate people. It is better to have girl volunteers to motivate women while boy volunteers can help building the toilets, and also help the villagers get bank loans.

Why do you have to motivate people to build toilets especially when women find it uncomfortable to go to the open fields?

You don't need much time to convince a woman about building toilets because they are the ones who are suffering. Men need time to get convinced as they are the ones who take decisions in a house. After that the problem is, how to get loan from the bank, how to build the toilets, etc.

We have to also give guarantee to them for at least two years. We have to constantly do follow ups to see that they use the toilets properly.

If we do this diligently, in five years time, there will not be any open defecation in India.

After the horrendous rape incident in UP, you said that there was a connection between rape and lack of toilets in villages....

Politician after politician from various political parties went there, but nobody spoke of building toilets there so that such incidents would not happen in future. This made me angry and I said, I would build the toilets.

Some women activists wrote that there was no connection between rape and lack of toilets...

I would say there is a connection between rape and absence of toilets. I am not saying all rapes are because of lack of toilets. 20 to 30 percent of rape cases happen because of the lack of toilets.

You said you would be writing to the prime minister. Have you written to him?

I am drafting a letter to him.

I am going to tell him that we should train 30,000 boys and girls to work as motivators in the villages. I want these girls and boys to go to 25 to 30 villages, house to house for five years. Also, 90,000 masons should be trained to build toilets. We should select girls and boys from the same area as motivators and not from outside.

The government should arrange for bank loans to build toilets.

There should be a national campaign by all political parties like they do during the elections.

I am also writing to major corporates in the country like the Tatas, Birlas, Premji, Nita Ambani, etc to help us in the campaign to build toilets. I would tell them that God helped them to help somebody else. I would also tell them that if Bill Gates could give so much money to society, why not our industrialists too?

We had not taken any donation from anyone till now but for this, we are planning to take donation from the public. Then, I will build toilets in the entire country. I am not leaving the entire work to the prime minister. On one hand, I am requesting the prime minister to take some action. On the other, I am planning to do this on my own.

You feel this should be the first priority of a government?

Yes. For example, you are on your way to a temple, and you feel like going to the toilet, what will you do first? Won't you go to the toilet first?

In 1968, when I went to people with the idea of building toilets, they asked me, do you want to talk about toilets? I said, yes. Then, they would say, have tea first and then talk about toilets. But today, everybody is talking about toilets.

I am happy that newspapers and television channels are also taking interest in the subject. Till now, it was a dull subject for them. People will become aware only through the media. So the role of the media is very important.

Gandhi got us freedom from the British. It is high time we got freedom from dirt and filth.

Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com