We all hear about entrepreneurs and start up success stories in IT, telecom, retail, etc. What about a successful multi millionaire or billionaire who builds, operates and manages toilets and waste management?
Most of us have not heard about this personality Bindeshwar Pathak, but I’m sure many people in India will be familiar with Sulabh sauchalayas (Sulabh public toilets), which is a solution provided by Sulabh International, a large sanitation solutions organization promoted by him.
Sanitation and its importance is understood well by medical practitioners and social scientists, but for most people its only about keeping one’s home or toilet clean. The range of influence sanitation can have on social, economic and infrastructure development and various other spheres of life was a thought that few people like Dr.Pathak envisioned.
Bindeshwar Pathak was born in Bihar, India on April 2, 1943 to a Brahmin (high caste) family. During his childhood days he was witnessing a lot of injustice and discrimination around him due to the caste system in society.
The Turning Point
Dr.Pathak used to recall an incident where he accidentally touched an untouchable woman. Pathak wanted to know what would happen if he touched a scavenger, one of India’s “untouchables,” stuck at the bottom of the country’s social order.
When he did, his grandmother punished him by forcing him to swallow cow dung and urine, and making him bathe in water from the Ganges. The untouchables are lowest in social order and are made to collect and dispose human waste, since they will not be accepted for other jobs due to their caste status.
“This issue has bothered me since,” says Pathak, 66, who describes himself as a humanist and social reformer. “If they continue to clean human excreta, they will not be accepted into society.”
This incident saw the transformation of Bindeshwar Pathak in to an visionary for taking the giant step to improve the country’s sanitation for decades to come.
Motivation for the idea & the way forward…
Discrimination against scavengers was only part of the problem. There were various issues such as:-
- Majority of the population in India lacks access to basic sanitation facility.
- Open defecation toilets which contaminate public places
- Spread of diseases such as diarrhea, cholera and hepatitis, etc.
- Other environmental and social issues
This motivated Bindeshwar Pathak to write a doctoral dissertation on scavenging and ways to deal with it. After a certain point of time Pathank realized that academia alone cannot solve social problems due to its limitations.
To take his idea further he built Sulabh, an organization focused on building sanitation facilities which will have the state of the art systems to collect, process and dispose off waste. However, this system is more than a mere toilet, because it also converts some of the waste into gas, fertilizer, etc for utilization in farms, for energy generation, etc.
We talk about next generation technologies and super computers, but let’s face the reality. Over half the world’s population does not have access to adequate sanitation facilities. The situation is even worse in most developing and third world countries.
An estimated 650 million of India’s poorest citizens lack access to basic hygienic toilets; open defecation toilets are still common.
We might live in an information age with superior technologies, but lack of basic facilities and infrastructure always seemed to take a back seat. This is where Dr.Pathak sensed an opportunity to provide adequate public sanitation facilities so that waste can be properly collected, utilized and disposed without harming the environment and social ecosystems.
The organization: Sulabh International
Although Bindeshwar started Sulabh International as a small outfit, it has grown by leaps and bounds in India as well as internationally. The organization brings together design, resources and financing to produce low-cost and basic technologies to provide cost effective sanitation solutions.
Its pur-flush compost toilet (Sulabh – Sauchalayas – meaning public toilets) is outfitted with biogas converters to generate energy and reduce toxins. Since most operations are mechanized and have latest technologies, the old practice of removing human waste manually is done away with.
People who used to do scavenging are now able to lead a better life and have a steady source of earning to manage their livelihood. Sulabh International has presence in 25 states and 4 union territories in India as well as spread across various nations abroad.
Making a difference to the community
Along with its initiatives in sanitation Sulabh International runs rehabilitation programs for out of work scavengers to train them on new skills thereby enable them to find new jobs. In 2003, Pathak set up a vocational center in Alwar, Rajasthan, where women are trained in tailoring, embroidery, food-processing and beauty treatments.
Last year, some three dozen of the trainees were flown to New York City to participate in a fashion show held at the U.N. headquarters to mark the International Year of Sanitation. (Courtesy: www.Time.com). Dr. Pathak has come up with an excreta-based biogas plant which generates biogas to be used for heating, cooking and electricity.
His toilets, the design of which he’s made available to NGOs around the country, are used by 10 million people daily, helping push the number of people in rural India with access to a toilet from 27% five years ago to 59% today (ie. September 2009).
Changing face of sanitation in India
With a large network spread over 25 states Sulabh International has become a household name and has become synonymous with public toilets. The word ‘sulabh’ means ‘simple’ in Hindi, but today the word has become synonymous with the public toilet, almost the same way that Xerox become synonymous with photocopying .
People who have travelled in India in the recent past would have definitely come across a Sulabh Sauchalaya in bus or railway stations, airports as well as other important public places. Indians living abroad, and occasionally visiting India would definitely have noticed better facilities in bus or railway stations and airports.
In addition to Mc.Donalds and Safeways we also need better waiting rooms, toilets, public telephones, etc, which are more important for the common man.
Sanitation is not a silly trade, but a serious billion dollar opportunity with promising potential and stable returns. However, it also requires one to make investments, research and commitment to the society in addition to running the commercial operations, which organizations like Sulabh have achieved.
Not all entrepreneurs can make a big difference to the bottom of the pyramid like Dr.Pathak, but if you make a start its definitely achievable overtime. Remember, it’s not just about building public toilets, but beyond that. There are thousands of business and tourist places in India where people travel frequently.
These places require public toilets, baths, hotels, motels, short stay facilities, cloak rooms, etc.
For instance in places such as Tirupati (in Andhra Pradesh) or Shirdi (in Maharashtra) where millions of tourists visit almost everyday we need tremendous infrastructure to just service a part of the crowd on a normal day. On special occasions or good seasons the demand could even go up 10 times higher than normal.
Lessons from Dr.Bindeshwar Pathak
There are a few lessons we can draw from Dr.Bindeshwar Pathak and his organization.
One needs to have a vision or a mission to work towards in order to get a direction of what you intend to achieve. This has to be further broken in to smaller goals and objectives.
Making a difference to the Bottom of Pyramid:
Most of the successful businesses are those that made a difference to the bottom of the pyramid. The people at the bottom could be customers, employees, suppliers, business partners, general public, etc.
Today corporate also have a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wing to work in this direction.
Being unique with conviction:
India is not short of innovations and genius talent, but some people lack conviction. Generally our culture sometimes holds us back from experimenting or innovating, because we are told to avoid mistakes, not take risks, etc.
However, for entrepreneurs the rules are different, and they need to take risks, do experiments and come up with unique models.
For example if Captain Gopinath did not start and experiment with the low-cost airline Deccan Air, most airlines in India would not have implemented the low-cost model.
Hesitation (or the Dignity Factor):
Most of us shy away from doing certain things (although legal and morally correct) because we think ‘what will by family think?’, ‘will my image in society come down?’, etc.
If Dr.Pathak was hesitant to start an initiative in sanitation being a highly educated man, India would have just had another Ph.D but not the man who made a difference to millions..
We have all heard of tech entrepreneurs and first generation entrepreneurs in India in the last one decade. In addition we also have a large community of Indian entrepreneurs and experts abroad. India has developed in many ways – technologically, lifestyle wise, etc, but some of the fundamental problems still remain unresolved affecting millions of people.
I would request all entrepreneurs and experts to get in to initiatives that can provide basic facilities to the lowest rung of the population in terms of education, healthcare, housing, sanitation, water, affordable energy, etc. Through this initiative we can put India in the next league of developed nations in the years to come.