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Nikkei Asia Prizes

Nikkei Asia Prizes 2018: Eliminating discrimination, one flush at a time

Bindeshwar Pathak's toilets offer hope for India's 'untouchables'

Bindeshwar Pathak views toilets as a tool for social justice that benefits the lowest rungs of Indian society. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

Winner for culture and community

Bindeshwar Pathak

Founder, Sulabh International Social Service Organization

NEW DELHI -- Bindeshwar Pathak still remembers with crystal clarity the tragedy that occurred on that winter's day in India's eastern state of Bihar in 1969. A cow suddenly began trampling a boy wearing a red shirt. Several people ran to help the fallen child but then stopped short after an onlooker shouted, "That boy is an untouchable!"

Pathak, then 25, and his friend were nearby and rushed to help the boy. They carried the child to a hospital, but he died along the way.

That incident stuck with Pathak, whose push to popularize flush toilets in India was heavily influenced by that heartbreaking episode.

Untouchables are the descendants of people ranked outside and below India's four-class varna system. For these "Dalits," sometimes the only way to earn money is to clean toilets for upper-caste families, which includes carrying the waste to a disposal area beyond the edge of town.

Believing that flush toilets could help eliminate this type of discrimination, Pathak in 1970 created a nongovernmental organization that is today called the Sulabh International Social Service Organization.

He set about designing a toilet that not only flushed, but also produced natural fertilizer. Funding was a problem, however, and a local government official laughed in Pathak's face when he asked about subsidies -- installing a toilet cost the equivalent of about $33 at the time.

In 1974, however, the Indian government recognized the potential of Pathak's product. Today his organization has installed Sulabh toilets in 8,500 public locations nationwide, as well as in 1.5 million homes. The government has introduced another 60 million toilets of similar design across the country.

Still, flush toilets have a penetration rate of just 50-60% in India, meaning Pathak still has a lot of work to do.

But perhaps in part because of his efforts, in some villages in Bihar, untouchables can now be seen eating together with other villagers. A plan that began 50 years ago to end discrimination is slowly coming together.

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