Water Heroes: Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak – The Million Toilet Man

Open defecation is a huge problem throughout the world.  Although the numbers have improved over the past 20 years, over one billion people still practice open defecation.  Nowadays, there are a lot of organizations working to eliminate the practice, but few have been working towards this goal as long as Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak.  His work started in 1970, when Dr. Pathak invented a pour-flush, compost latrine, and he hasn’t stopped since.  His latrine has been used in China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and India, helping 54 million people end their practice of open defecation.  This is great, but not too surprising once you know who Dr. Pathak is.

Dr. Pathak grew up in India, and since an early age has wanted to help others.  Dr. Pathak was raised in the upper caste, however, as a boy he had many experiences with people from the lower caste, “untouchables”, or scavengers, which changed his views on them (even though his family tried to keep him from them).  After college he spent months working and living in a scavenger colony, and joined the Bhangi-Mukti (scavengers’ liberation) cell, which worked to end the stigma against these people and to make them a part of the society that all others in India enjoyed.  And he was successful with this.  His motivation to help the scavenger society also led him to start looking at the sanitation situation.  This is because in a caste society it is the people on the bottom that have to clean up everyone else’s shit.  But maybe there was something he could do to make their lives better.

And there was.  He started in 1968 when he was tasked with finding a way to eliminate manual scavenging, specifically cleaning toilets with hand tools.  At that time most people used bucket latrines, which is exactly what it sounds like, a bucket that people go to the bathroom in.  This system was very unhygienic, especially for those people who had to clean them.  An inventor by nature, Dr. Pathak invented a two-pit, pour-flush composting toilet, now known as the Sulabh Sauchalaya System (this name comes from the non-profit he started, called Sulabh Sauchalaya Sansthan).  His toilets consists of two pits to be used alternately.  When one pit is filled the owner switches to the second, and the first pit sits and the waste is converted to safe compost manure.  You can find plans for this toilet system here. This system was appropriate and simple, affordable, made from locally available material, and, maybe most important to Dr. Pathak, liberated the scavengers from having to manually remove waste.  Once this happened people started to look at the scavengers in a different light, and since then they have become more accepted in all aspects of life in India.

Although to most people this success may have been enough, Dr. Pathak was just getting started.  He is responsible for the construction of more than 7,500 public toilets throughout India which use a pay-and-use system to keep them maintained.   He has worked, and succeeded in part, to change the view of sanitation in India from a taboo to something that is a normal part of life and can be talked about.  I say ‘in part’ because the topic of sanitation, and even using a toilet, is still misunderstood in many parts of India, one of the reasons why open defecation still happens.  For example, some people in India believe that open defecation is associated with good health and a wholesome rural life.

To help combat this ongoing problem Dr. Pathak started The Sulabh International Institute of Health and Hygiene (SIIHH).  The organization has developed educational tools for schoolchildren and teachers, has established small healthcare centers, and it provides training for volunteer instructors so they can then go out into communities and educate people about health, hygiene, and sanitation.  This type of education is key to getting people to switch from open defecation to using a toilet.

His inventions didn’t stop with his toilet.  He has developed a way to completely recycle and reuse human waste.  This is done via anaerobic digestion that produces biogas which can be used for cooking, lighting, etc.  160 biogas plants on all different scales, from apartment buildings to a few public toilets, have been installed because of Dr. Pathak.  And as if this all wasn’t enough, he has also developed a Duckweed-based wastewater treatment system.  But he still isn’t done.

Currently, Dr. Pathak is back home in India to continue his good work.  In a country where more people have cell phones then access to a toilet, with 626 million people still practicing open defecation, there is a lot of work to do.  India leads the world, by far, in the number of open defecators.  A little background on open defecation for those who don’t know what it is.  The definition is simple; people pooping in the open.  This could be out in a field, in an alley, along train tracks, along a riverbank, or anywhere else.  This is a problem for a number of reasons.

First, it is unhygienic and can intensify the spreading of diseases such as diarrhea and cholera.  Also, exposure to germs associated with open defecation can cause stunted growth, which affects 61 million children in India.  Sickness associated with open defecation is a problem not only from a health perspective, but when families are continuously sick they are unable to work or go to school.  This means that it is harder for poor families to pull themselves out of poverty, and therefore, they stay poor.

Next, untreated waste can pollute groundwater, which can lead to a host of other problems.  If the groundwater is being used for drinking water then drinking contaminated groundwater can lead to disease.  If the groundwater is being used for agriculture then the produce can become contaminated, and therefore, when you eat it you can become sick.

Further, it can be very dangerous for women and girls who have to go out into the bush to relieve themselves.  There have been numerous reports of females being assaulted and raped while going out to take care of business, an occurrence that would not happen if they had a latrine directly outside of their home.  So, as you can see, this is a huge problem with a lot of very bad consequences.

Hopefully all of that will be a thing of the past soon.  Dr. Pathak latest crusade is to raise $34 billion dollars from the government of India, as well as from rich donors, to end open defecation in India.  If raised, this $34 billion dollars will buy 100 million toilets to be installed throughout India.  He would need to raise further funds to pay workers to install the toilets, as well as to educate the public about why they should use these toilets instead of continuing to defecate in the open.  This is a huge sum of money, however, he has a good chance of raising it with the new government in India.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that, “By 2022, no Indian should be without a home, without clean water, without electricity and without a toilet,”.  Sounds great!  Only time will tell if Modi will be true to his word, but with the help of Dr. Pathak there is no reason why this shouldn’t be the reality in India’s future.

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What a wonderful man Dr. Pathak is!  He has dedicated his entire life to helping the less fortunate for the simple reason that it was the right thing to do.  I also find it very telling that he was born into the upper caste in India, and devoted his life to helping the lowest.  He went against social norms and ignored what everyone told him, and the results have changed his country.  His teachings have helped a whole society rise up from scavenging to being a part of normal society.  His toilets have brought health and prosperity to millions of people in a number of countries around the world.  At 71 years old he is showing no signs of slowing down, and that is a good thing for the world.  We need more people like Dr. Pathak to step up and improve the livelihoods of people everywhere, and to inspire others to do the same.  So Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, I thank you!  And to everyone reading, I thank you too!  I hope you enjoyed it.

I wanted to note that Dr. Pathak has done so much work that I couldn’t fit everything in this article.  If you’d like to read more about him please take a look at the sources listed below.  Sulabh International – A Profile of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is a great one that goes through his entire career.


UN Water – Access to Sanitation

UNICEF/WHO – Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water – 2010 Update

Bloomberg BusinessWeek – Inventor Targets Open-Air Defecation of 600 Million Indians

WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Report 2012 – Fast Facts

WaterAid – Abandoning Open Defecation

Wall St. Journal – U.N. Campaign Targets Open Defecation in India

Ashoka – Bindeshwar Pathak – Biography

Sulabh International – A Profile of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak

Water Heroes: Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak – The Million Toilet Man

2 thoughts on “Water Heroes: Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak – The Million Toilet Man

  • October 10, 2014 at 1:42 am

    I want to add a little more about this great man. Dr Bindeshwari Pathak and his organisation, Sulabh, have adopted abandoned widows in two towns in India-Vrindavan and Varanasi. Widows, you must understand , have always been shunned by Hindu society, and are excluded from all festivities and joyous occasions. If childless, they are deprived of their share of property, and dumped in the holy cities of Vrindavan and Varanasi. Dr Pathak, on a request from the country’s premier legal services authority, has now taken it upon himself to help these women.

    • October 10, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Hi Rina,

      Thank you so much for sharing. That is amazing but not surprising since Dr. Pathak is such a great man and cares so much for others.



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