Over a span of four decades Bindeshwar Pathak has advanced his vision for a safe, just, and dignified India through the introduction of dramatically improved sanitation. His project, Sulabh International, is improving India’s sanitation, weakening the caste system, and helping those in the “untouchable” caste move into safer, more dignified jobs. Bindeshwar’s systems are supported by municipal and user fees.

This profile below was prepared when Bindeshwar Pathak was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


Over a span of four decades Bindeshwar Pathak has advanced his vision for a safe, just, and dignified India through the introduction of dramatically improved sanitation. His project, Sulabh International, is improving India’s sanitation, weakening the caste system, and helping those in the “untouchable” caste move into safer, more dignified jobs. Bindeshwar’s systems are supported by municipal and user fees.


An estimated 650 million of India’s poorest citizens lack access to basic hygienic toilets; open defecation toilets are still common. When Bindeshwar started his work 40 years ago, he saw that sanitation offered a leverage point in matters both obvious and profound: Health, livelihoods, environment, social cohesion, and rights—particularly as pertains to the millions of India’s “untouchable” caste.
Sulabh International advances transformative change in diverse communities. His solution brings together design, financing, public will, municipal resources and technologies that are basic and low cost. The pour-flush compost toilet (Sulabh-Shauchalayas) is outfitted with biogas converters to generate energy and reduce toxins and environmentally damaging practices such as dumping waste into rivers. By introducing a scalable, self-financing solution for sanitation, Bindeshwar eliminates scavenging—the practice of removing human waste with manual tools—a job that falls to India’s untouchables. Thus, the system he has introduced has created new roles for India’s poorest citizens and charted a new, safe and dignified way for them to earn money.
The infrastructure Bindeshwar has built is successfully used in twenty-five states and four territories. Many of his approaches have been adopted in other countries, and Sulabh International is actively involved in extending its work to Bhutan and Afghanistan. Additionally, Bindeshwar is building a University of Sanitation that will be a central resource center for everyone who needs to know about sanitation—users, technologists, municipal leaders, renewable energy experts and rights workers—to learn, share ideas, expand and deepen the work, and develop new ideas. 


In India, more than 65 percent of the population lack basic sanitation facilities. That results in diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, infectious hepatitis, and hookworm. Studies show that more than 50 types of infections can be transmitted from human excrement, which causes or contributes to approximately 80 percent of disease in developing countries. Disposal of human excrement causes significant environmental degradation as well. Sewage waste material is often dumped in rivers; areas without sewage facilities collect the waste on land. One of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals is to provide two billion people with toilets by 2015, but the goal is unlikely to be met because of the approaches currently used in many parts of the world. Rural populations have little access to proper toilet facilities, and urban slums are growing faster than toilets are being built. With few wastewater management facilities, both environmental damage and health hazards spread.
Because of ignorance about sanitation and expensive sanitation technologies, many people— mostly those in the lower economic strata—live in unhygienic environments and constantly are threatened by preventable diseases. Furthermore, talking about excrement is a cultural taboo. Sanitation, therefore, is regarded as a matter of individual initiative—not a collective obligation of the community.
In 1878, an act was passed under British rule to implement public toilet systems. Even though the system was tried in some places around India, the toilets were too expensive to maintain and fell to disrepair. In the face of that failure, the subject of public sanitation was put aside, and defecation in public places continued. Due to the “dirty” undertones of the sanitation sector, people in “respectable” fields, such as engineering, business, and science, traditionally did not wish to work in the sector.
The job fell to “scavengers.” Scavengers manually clean bucket toilets using rudimentary tools such as shovels and other buckets. Scavengers are relegated to the caste of untouchables and suffer discrimination. The caste has very little access to education, social services, or job mobility. With low literacy levels and few marketable skills, the scavengers’ lives perpetuate a cycle of poverty. 


Bindeshwar’s goal is to transform the sanitation sector and provide more opportunities for everyone. By making the sanitation sector more suitable for investment, he is increasing the rewards of working in the sector. Further, his programs are rehabilitating the scavengers and integrating them into society in a more respectful manner.
Bindeshwar developed the pour-flush compost toilet to promote better sanitation. The flush compost toilet requires one-tenth of the water required by traditional toilet systems and can be used for up to two years without waste removal. The system has helped eliminate open bucket toilets and is creating more opportunities for sanitary defecation. It also is recycling human waste and using it as agricultural fertilizer rather than allowing it to be dumped into local water supplies.
To give the affordable system greater exposure in India, Bindeshwar came up with the idea of “pay and use.” He receives initial financing from local governing bodies to build public toilet complexes, and Sulabh takes the maintenance guarantee. Although people in Bihar initially were skeptical of the pilot program in their state, more than 500 came to use the public toilets on the first day. Since Sulabh receives revenue through its public toilet system, it does not depend on external agencies for financing. Toilet complexes in slums and rural areas are subsidized with revenue from complexes in urban and more developed locations, which allowed the public toilet system to expand to over 1,400 cities in India, providing safe sanitation for all economic classes.
Under Sulabh International Academy of Environmental Sanitation, Bindeshwar has been able to spread sanitation knowledge to citizen organizations, nurses, doctors, and officers from central, state, and local governments. He has held training workshops to enhance knowledge and skills in project planning and implementation of sanitation technologies through on-site construction, technical visits, and maintenance. Bindeshwar has also educated interested parties on various sanitation systems being implemented in the developing world, including biogas, biofertilizer, water treatment, duckweed technologies, solid waste management, and environmental protection. By institutionalizing sanitation education, Bindeshwar brings people from all sectors together and removes taboos. Toilets are now becoming a source of economic gains, and Bindeshwar is able to engage top business professionals, engineers, and academics in the sanitation sector.
Even though Bindeshwar’s organization is sanitation-oriented, it holds true to its fundamental mission to liberate scavengers and remove social discrimination and untouchability. Toilet technology has become a tool for social transformation. Along with sanitation programs, Bindeshwar is providing technology and vocational training to help empower and generate alternative employment opportunities for scavengers. His approach to restore human dignity to the scavengers has five stages: 1) Liberation, 2) Rehabilitation, 3) Vocational training, 4) Social elevation, and 5) Proper education for future generations.
Since scavengers traditionally have been trapped in a cycle of poverty and societal disenfranchisement, Bindeshwar is breaking that cycle through training and restoring dignity to the population. Through a combination of technological innovation and educational programming, he is using Sulabh to create a social revolution. Adopting flush toilets would end scavenging, enabling scavengers to pursue alternative forms of employment. 


Bindeshwar was born on April 2, 1943, to a Brahmin (high caste) family, in Bihar, India. As a child, Bindeshwar realized the injustices of the caste system. He once accidentally touched an untouchable woman; as punishment his grandmother made him swallow cow dung. That was the first of many experiences he had with the untouchable, scavenging community.
After college, Bindeshwar joined the Bhangi-Mukti (scavengers’ liberation) cell, a group dedicated to celebrating the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi and promoting a more just and integrated society. Through his work with Bhangi-Mukti, Bindeshwar lived and worked in an untouchable colony for three months. During his time in the colony he saw a newly married woman forced by her in-laws to clean toilets in Bihar. He also observed the way scavengers were dehumanized by mainstream society, and sought to declare them as a special class united in their disenfranchisement.
Even though Bindeshwar wrote his doctoral dissertation on scavenging, he realized that academia could not solve social problems. In his commitment to human rights and human dignity, he built up Sulabh as a systematic response to deal with the problem of manual scavenging. An inventor by nature, Bindeshwar ultimately focused on building an alternative to bucket toilets that was affordable and culturally acceptable. When building his organization, Bindeshwar said, “The turning point was realizing that the success of an organization depends on its own resources. Self-reliance is important.” To bolster his vision of a more just society, he combined theory with practice, and launched Sulabh International. Bindeshwar has transformed societal approaches to sanitation, built an enduring infrastructure for public sanitation and attracted new skilled talent to the sanitation sector.