Sometime in 1968 during Mahatma Gandhi’s birth centenary celebrations in Bihar, Bindeshwar Pathak was asked by a celebration committee member to work for restoring the rights and dignity of India’s untouchables, if he really wanted to pay a tribute to Gandhi who launched a campaign against untouchability.
Pathak, who comes from a Brahmin family, was not convinced at that time that he could mix with untouchables, called Dalits, much less working for their amelioration. But he recalls that his attitude changed a few months later when he saw a boy in Bihar, crying desperately for help from attack by a bull on a village road, and bystanders preventing him from saving the boy.”The boy died in hospital, and that incident left an indelible impression on me about the plight of Dalits in India, and I decided to do something that will remove the stigma attached to the members of the community,’ Pathak said during an interview after being honored by Global Leaders Dialogue with its 2016 Humanitarian Award at Harvard Club in Manhattan, New York.
Pathank founded Sulabh International in 1970 in Bihar to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management and social reforms through education. Most importantly, it launched a method of building inexpensive toilets in villages, and stop the age-old practice of open defecation and the custom, under which the Untouchables were forced to carry night soil from bucket toilets on their heads to trash them at a dumping ground.
Today Sulabh has constructed nearly 1.3million household toilets and 54 million government toilets based on an innovative toilet design. Nearly 15 million people use these toilets daily. Pathak said Sulabh is also leading a movement to discourage manual cleaning of human waste, which essentially caused to be attached to Dalits in the past. So much is the social sigma that people from higher castes would not break bread with a Dalit.
“Legislation cannot stop the practice of untouchability. What one needs is social acceptance, I think we are gradually inching towards that goal as some villages have been established where untouchability is not practiced, there is no manual cleaning of toilets, and most importantly people from the once untouchable community have found new vocations,” Pathak said in an interview.
Still, he admitted it’s a long way to go as there are 120 million houses in India which have no toilets; people defecate in the open, and untouchability against Dalits exists in large part of rural areas and the is need to work hard to eradicate this practice and build toilets for everybody. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also has given a call to build toilets for all by the year 2019.
At Harvard Club, where he was honored, Pathak was described by the event organizers as a “great humanitarian” who for decades has enhanced the quality of life for millions. “His leadership is an example to us all,” a citation given to him said. The organizers noted that Dr Pathak, described by a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi as the “spiritual grandson of Gandhi”, stands at the highest level in embodying these rare qualities”.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also welcomed Pathak to New York City and as mark of honor to him and appreciation of his work declared April 14 in New York as the Bindeshwar Pathak Day during a ceremony in New York Surrogate’s Court April 14.