Turning scavengers into sanitation ambassadors

NEW DELHI: At the break of dawn, 18-year-old Bhiku collects the night soil flowing out of houses here yet to be linked to the sewers.

Not only does his job leave him open to diarrhoeal diseases, but Bhiku is considered an "untouchable" because of his work.

He is one of thousands engaged as scavengers by authorities in cities and towns in several states, including the New Delhi neighbourhoods of Seelampuri and Gautampuri. But for them human waste would wash into the open drains and create a health hazard.

Sulabh International, which is synonymous with clean washrooms and public toilets in India, now wants to turn 700,000 people like Bhiku into ambassadors of its sanitation campaign.

These agents of change will be deployed in the 700,000 villages across the country to establish linkages with the Sulabh movement for better management of wells, ponds and toilets.

"Through these young people we hope to spread the movement for better sanitation," said Bindeshwar Pathak, the spirit behind Sulabh.

"Our programme is to give vocational training to these young people to be self-employed, while at the same time take charge of basic hygiene facilities in the villages," Pathak told IANS.

What Pathak started as a social service movement in 1970 to give a more dignified life to scavengers has today mushroomed into a multifaceted operation.

The non-profit organisation currently operates in 25 states through 1,015 branches. It operates 4,000 public toilets-cum-washrooms, including the world's biggest such complex at Shirdi in Maharashtra, a pilgrim spot.

From advising people on low-cost toilet technology using locally available material, Sulabh has branched out to conduct several vocational training courses and a school for the children of scavengers.

"So far we have trained 50,000 people who are working as volunteers. Now our plan is to take the movement further by training young people to be self-employed while undertaking voluntary work," said Pathak. To realise its dream of giving a life of dignity to scavengers, Sulabh is seeking tie-ups with leading industries and non-resident Indians (NRIs) to fund the scheme.

"We would like the industries to help us carry out this social responsibility," said Pathak, who won the country's Padma Bhushan award in 1991. He has received several international awards for his innovative twin-pit pour flush toilet technology.

The massive training programme is to be undertaken at a new vocational centre to be set up by 2004 on a 40-acre plot in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of New Delhi. It will also house Sulabh's unique toilet museum.

Sulabh is also setting up its own data bank on every village in the country to find out the water resources and other facilities available to the inhabitants. To create awareness about sanitation and hygiene, Pathak is keen to give every village council at least three to five books on the subject.

Sulabh is currently trying to promote the use of biogas generated from solid waste and night soil. It is an uphill task in villages where anything to do with human waste is considered taboo by the upper castes, admitted Pathak.

Using duckweed, Sulabh's research and training division is engaged in evolving wastewater treatment and solid waste management technology.

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Referred by:Benjamin P Kaila
Published on:sep 16, 2001
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