An estimated 2.3 billion people worldwide live without toilets. 60% of them are in India.
One in every two people in India defecates in the open, according to the most recent national census.
But one man is taking on the epic challenge of India’s sanitation crisis: Dr Bindeshwar Pathak has become proudly known as the toilet man of India.
Jasvinder Sehgal travelled to the northern state of Haryana on World Toilet Day last month to find out more.
Dozens of school girls are singing. Boys shout out slogans that promote awareness of sanitation and toilets. The small town of Marora, in Haryana is celebrating, as a huge squat toilet is unveiled by India’s toilet man, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak.
Measuring 6 by 3 metres, the toilet is far too big for any human! Instead, the larger than life replica has been constructed to emphasise just how important it is to use toilets.
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak tells me his NGO, Sulabh International is committed to raising awareness about sanitation and hygiene throughout India.
“We have constructed 1.5 million toilets in households - urban and rural, both,” he explained. “At public places we have built about 9000 public toilets, minimum 10 seats and maximum is the 2858 seats in Pandarpur, Maharsthra. Four hundred thousand people use these toilets daily.”
Dr Pathak explains that toilets save lives. Without them, human waste is left in the open, spreading killer diseases, like diarrhea and cholera.
He tells me that toilets are also a priority for Indian women, affording them safety and dignity, which they lack when forced to defecate in the open.
He says decades of work is now making an impact – In 2014 India’s national government initiated the “Clean India” campaign.
“We have cleaned this country,” he stated. “We have helped. Now the Prime Minister of India has this program to stop defecation in the open by 2019. On our technology the Government of India has built about 70 million toilets through State Governments.”
Dr Pathak’s technology is the ‘two pit pour flush’ ecologically sustainable, composting toilet.
“One pit is used at a time and the other is kept stand by.” He went on, “if the first one is full, we switch over to another one. The first one after two years becomes manure or fertilizer. Because of this technology it’s not required to be cleaned.”
When sanitation is managed properly, Dr. Pathak says that it can become very useful.
He explains that poo should be processed. When is turned into treated waste it can be safely returned to the environment. Then it can be put to work generating energy, or even as a fertilizer in food production.
“The human excreta goes to a biogas digester and that is used for burning lamps or cooking food. So the human excreta are fully recycled.We don’t allow methane to go to the atmosphere, we burn. So it helps to reduce the global warming and hence the climate change.”
Dr. Pathak is determined to share his knowledge of toilets far and wide. And he’s set up a very unique place to do just that.
I traveled to India’s capital New Delhi, to visit his toilet museum.
“In 2014 Time magazine carried out a survey all over the world to list 10 weirdest museums in the world. And this museum was in the third position,” explained curator Dr. Bagheshwar Jha. The museum traces the 4,500 year history of the toilet.
The museum has exhibits from 50 countries, and displays ancient, medieval and modern toilets.
The giant squat toilet in Marora village will eventually be displayed here, along with all kinds of replicas. Assistant curator Shikha Sharma shows me her favourite one.
“The throne toilet is the most interesting one, the throne of the French emperor Louis XIV. The king had the problem of constipation. He use to sit here and just beneath his throne he built a commode to ease himself,” she said.
The toilet museum draws thousands of visitors every year.
Raju Singh, 28 was visiting when I was there, and showed me his personal highlight.
“It’s a hilarious letter written in broken English to the authorities of Railways,” he said. “In the colonial era the writer was travelling by a train, and had a strong urge to defecate but there was no toilet on the train. His letter compelled the British authorities to put toilets on Indian trains.”
And as history repeats itself, India’s toilet man is now pushing for a toilet in every home in the country.