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The Future of Asia 2018

Indian NGO ready to bring better sanitation to Asia and beyond

Sulabh International founder says it can help over 2bn people access toilets

Indian social activist Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, introduces the organization's efforts in Tokyo on June 12. (Photo by Maho Obata)

TOKYO --  An Indian social reformer who has worked to end an age-old stigma associated with a lack of proper toilets says he is confident that his design can save over 2 billion people suffering from poor sanitation around the world.

Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, has worked for 50 years to solve sanitation problems in India. He invented a composting flush toilet that his nongovernmental organization has installed in 1.5 million homes.

The Indian government has introduced 60 million toilets of a similar design throughout the country. The government’s goal is 100% access to toilets by 2019, and Pathak said it already has achieved 85%.

But his ambitions are not confined to India. “The technology is also helping other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America,” where 2 billion people have no access to safe and hygienic toilets in their homes, he said on Tuesday in an interview on the sidelines of the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo.

“The technology can help end open defecation in all continents,” Pathak said.

India's lack of proper sanitation has a long and deep connection with its caste system. The former "untouchable" caste once removed human waste by hand and suffered the stigma associated with this work.

Pathak has striven to eliminate this discrimination by popularizing toilets. He was awarded the 2018 Nikkei Asia Prize for culture and community in recognition of his efforts.

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, South Africa and Ghana have also adopted the Sulabh design. However, he said there is also demand for inexpensive waste disposal in developed countries, as people in some areas still use septic tanks.

During a recent visit to the U.S., Pathak said he was asked to export his technology to build toilets in American rural areas where sewage systems are not in use. He said he has also discussed with companies in Japan, known for its high-tech toilets, for building cheap models the Sulabh way. 

While these countries have the technology to install modern flush toilets, the costs tend to be high. In an extreme example, one unit can cost 1 million yen ($9,000) in Tokyo, compared with only $20 for a Sulabh toilet in India, he said.

“If Japan wants [the technology], certainly we can help,” he said.

Nikkei staff writer Sarah Hilton contributed to this article.

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