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| Last Updated:17/05/2014

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Solving India's sanitation woes

The Hindu, 16 May 2014


Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder Sulabh International, at his toilet museum in New Delhi. (Right) Models of Sulabh flush compost toilets, with pits and structures made of locally available materials.Photo: Sandeep Saxena, AFP


New innovations in compost toilets aim to make a dent in sanitation and energy problems in the developing world. The Hindu temples of Pashupatinath and Guheshwori in Kathmandu attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Many come to the sacred sites in search of spiritual succour. Others are simply on the tourist trail. Whatever brings them, all have one thing in common: at some stage, they will probably want to use the toilet.


A new initiative by Sulabh International, the India-based social enterprise in partnership with a local charity, plans to construct extensive toilet facilities at both sites.


Low cost toilets


In the two decades after 1990, around 2,40,000 people a day gained access to improved sanitation, according to the United Nations. Sulabh (meaning “accessible” in Hindi) is one of those at the forefront of this effort. Over the past 44 years, it has built over 1.3m household toilets. Its design for a low-cost, eco compost toilet has inspired 54m others, paid for by the Indian government.


Bindeshwar Pathak, a 71-year-old Gandhian and an inspired social reformer, founded Sulabh in an attempt to tackle the social stigma around the handling of human waste referred to as “scavenging” in India. The organisation now operates in 1,599 towns across the country and boasts annual revenues of around $60m.


“Much still needs to be done,” says Pathak, referring to the developing world as a whole, where an estimated 2.5 billion people still lack decent sanitation facilities. In India, almost half of the country’s 247 million households lack access to a toilet, according to the 2011 national census. The consequent practice of open defecation is linked to outbreaks of diarrhoea, dysentery and other serious bacterial infections.


Household lavatories


Sulabh continues to work with government agencies across India to install its household lavatories, which cost around $15 a time. Even so, Pathak believes that pay-to-use public toilets are the “only way” the world will achieve the United Nation’s goal of providing toilet access for all by 2025.


What about revenue?


Sulabh cross subsidises its rural or less busy locations with facilities in more popular locations. It also uses revenues generated through a government-backed cleaning services contract - which, in addition, provides employment for former ‘scavengers’.


“Charging isn’t too much of a problem, but you have to promote good facilities for people to pay,” says Pathak, who was awarded with a Legend of the Planet award from the French Senate last year.


To that end, Sulabh ensures the toilets are always kept clean and remain open 24 hours a day. It also offers free soap powder for hand washing. In some locations, it has introduced health facilities for medical check-ups, prescriptions and other basic healthcare services.


The scheme’s social benefits are enhanced in two further ways. Based on a two-pit, pour-flush design, the organisation’s household toilets store solid waste that can then be used as a natural fertiliser. The public toilet complexes are connected to anaerobic digesters. These produce biogas that can be used for lighting, cooking and generating electricity.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014