SHAFAQNA – The cistern is broken, the walls are stained and a foul stench rises from the chipped masonry.Indian toilets like those in Mumbai Central station may not be known for their Japanese levels of hygiene and comfort, but Bindeshwar Pathak — the country’s foremost sanitation crusader — believes that the country is on the brink of a revolution.
Over the next five years, he will lead the world’s biggest lavatory construction drive, installing latrines in 120 million homes to improve sanitation and prevent millions of deaths from common, preventable diseases.
Mr Pathak, 71, who has devoted his life to improving India’s sanitary habits, said that the project — backed by Narendra Modi, the new prime minister — would radically change health and social conditions in the world’s second most populous nation.
“Indians have defecated in the open for 5,000 years,” said Mr Pathak, who comes from impoverished Bihar state in the north and is an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi. “But the goal of ending the practice is now achievable. I hope we will do it. We will save the lives of millions of children and allow women to go in dignity”.
Mr Pathak, won the Padma Bhushan, India’s highest civilian award, for his work running Sulabh International, the world’s biggest sanitation non-governmental organisation, and believes that the toilet is a powerful tool for social change.
Seventy per cent of homes in rural areas and 20 per cent in urban areas still lack lavatories, meaning that at least 550 million of India’s 1.2 billion people still defecate in the open.
The practice stems from poverty but also from a cultural belief that a home should not be polluted by a toilet. It is also tied to ancient forms of Hindu caste discrimination against “Untouchables”, who work in the handling and cleaning of human waste.
These persistent beliefs mean that open defecation is far more common in India than in poorer countries such as Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Burundi and Rwanda.
The lack of proper sewage systems is one of India’s most basic problems. According to WaterAid, an estimated 2.8 million Indian children have died since 2000 because of diseases that can easily be prevented, such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, caused by the lack of proper facilities.
The practice also compounds the problems facing women and girls in India. They are forced to go alone at night into unlit fields, where they are sometimes harassed or raped.
Adding weight to Mr Pathak’s lifelong campaign, Mr Modi became the first leader to address the issue during the annual Independence Day speech from Red Fort in Delhi in August. “No prime minister has talked about toilets from the Red Fort before,” says Mr Pathak.
Since it was launched in 1970, Sulabh International has installed 1.3 million toilets across the country, but Mr Pathak’s ambitions have become now far grander.
The plan forms part of Mr Modi’s “Clean India” campaign to improve hygiene. It involves training 50,000 volunteers to inspire social change and 200,000 masons who will visit 640,000 villages and construct 3,000 toilets each over the next five years.
Moving from village to village, their goal will be to make India entirely free of open defecation by 2019 — in time for the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, a campaigner for the rights of India’s untouchable caste.
The construction drive will be accompanied by a massive education campaign to shift entrenched social attitudes and will be bankrolled by the central government as well as by private investors such as Bharti Airtel, India’s biggest mobile phone company.
Mr Pathak said that Sulabh International had come up with an ideal latrine design, which is hygienic and can be introduced at low cost. “It’s possible — now we just need to get on and do it,” he said.