MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
"This is dried human excreta," he says, watching closely if the reporter flinches. It's hard not to. Then he holds out a bottle of clear water, screws open the top and offers it to a visitor to sniff. "This water is from the digester and is full of nutrients, it is an excellent fertiliser," he says.
Pathak is India's "Mr Toilet"?the man who has gone boldly forth where no man wants to tread. Single-handedly over 30 years, he has installed 1.4 million toilets in homes that didn't have any, 6,500 pay-to-use public loos in cities across India and provided employment for female scanvengers.
For his single-minded obsession with public hygiene through his oganisation called Sulabh, Pathak has been awarded Padma Bhusan in India and has been put on the Global 500 Roll of Honour by the United Nations Environment Program.
"It used to be very difficult in the beginning to get people to talk about toilets," Pathak told Nepali Times on a visit to Kathmandu last week, "but slowly people realised what a disgrace it was that so many people were forced to defecate in the open, the hardships this caused women and the impact this was having on public health."
Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi was so conscious of this when he came to India from South Africa that he once said he wanted to "clean India first, independence can come later". At that time, 75 percent of Indians did not have access to proper toilets. Pathak, as it turned out, became the most effective Gandhian in turning hygiene into a national campaign after launching Sulabh toilets in Bihar in 1970.
Since then, Sulabh has worked in liberating 'low' caste women scavengers who make a living collecting nightsoil. It arranged alternative employment for them and making their work less hazardous. Today Sulabh's design for twin-pit composting toilet has been replicated across the world, and Pathak is exploring the possibility of setting up a string of public toilets in Kathmandu using his sustainable pay-per-use model.
Sulabh's latest toilet models generate methane for street lights and kitchen stoves, the spent slurry is dried for use as fertiliser. A modern flush toilet uses only two litres of water instead of the usual five litres. Sulabh also runs a Toilet Museum in New Delhi where among the exhibits is the toilet used by Louis XIV and the first water closet invented in the 19th century by Thomas Crapper.
"In a country like Nepal, educating people and improving sanitation is the best thing you can do for public health, especially to prevent unnecessary childhood deaths" says Pathak, "talking about good hygiene and sanitation is nothing to be ashamed about."
Cash from trash - FROM ISSUE #418 (19 SEPT 2008 - 25 SEPT 2008)