At least 54 million people in Asia can thank Bindeshwar Pathak when they defecate in private. If he has his way, about 600 million people in India who don’t have that luxury will join them a decade from now.
Pathak, 71, invented a pour-flush, compost latrine in 1970 that is now in use in China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and Cambodia. He’s leading a push to raise at least 2 trillion rupees ($34 billion) from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government as well as billionaires such as Bill Gates and Mukesh Ambani to end open defecation in India, where about half of the nation’s 1.2 billion people relieve themselves outdoors.
“These other countries came to my door and asked for the model 30 years ago, but our government has yet to take responsibility for India’s biggest problem,” said Pathak, an Indian who was given the “Legend of Planet” award by France’s Senate last year for his work in sanitation. “The new government seems more receptive to this problem.”
At stake is $54 billion a year in economic costs in India, equivalent to about 3 percent of gross domestic product in Asia’s third-biggest economy and a quarter of global losses from poor sanitation. Open defecation contaminates ground water, spreads disease and exposes women to sexual assaults, including two girls in India who were raped and hanged from a tree last month after squatting in a field near their homes.
The economy suffers from premature deaths, higher health care costs and a drop in productivity as people fall ill and miss time from work and school, according to a 2011 report by the Water and Sanitation Program, a World Bank-supported group that analyzed data from 2006, the most recent available. A lack of toilets also deters tourists, with at least three studies showing India poses the highest risk to travelers of picking up multiple drug-resistant strains of fecal bacteria.
“If you don’t have the drive, then all the money in the world can’t fix a problem which really can be solved,” said Chris Williams, executive director of the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, a unit of the United Nations based in Geneva. “What India has to do now is really take ownership of the process.”
India accounts for about 60 percent of the world’s residents without toilets, according to a World Health Organization and UNICEF report released in May. The country’s 50 percent open defecation rate compares with 23 percent in Pakistan, 3 percent in Bangladesh and 1 percent in China, the report said.
Raising $34 billion won’t be easy. The amount is 16 times more than India’s government has spent on its main toilet-building program since 1999, according to the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation. Pathak’s New Delhi-based Sulabh International Social Service Organization has an annual budget of $60 million, and he says nobody has yet pledged a dime.
Even so, he’s optimistic.
“If the government executes my plan, then we will raise this money and end open defecation in the next 10 years,” Pathak said.
He plans to spend the $34 billion on 100 million toilets at $340 apiece to end open defecation by 2024. He’ll also need funds for a team of as many as 40,000 unskilled laborers earning at least 15,000 rupees ($250) per month to travel across India installing the toilets in cities and villages.
Modi, who took power last month after winning the biggest Indian mandate in 30 years, has voiced support for putting toilets in homes without spelling out the details. Nitin Gadkari, the minister for water and sanitation, has yet to meet with top bureaucrats since taking over after his predecessor died last week, said spokesman Shambhu Nath Choudhary.
“By 2022, no Indian should be without a home, without clean water, without electricity and without a toilet,” Modi told the lower house of Parliament yesterday.
Pathak has sought the help of billionaires such as Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, and Nita Ambani, the wife of Mukesh Ambani, India’s wealthiest man. He’s also held discussions with State Bank of India, the country’s biggest lender.
Tushar Pania, a spokesman for Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL), said he did not receive a reply from Nita Ambani’s office when asked about her plans to contribute to Pathak’s plan. State Bank of India (SBIN) spokesman M.K. Rekhi could not immediately comment on the bank’s commitment to Pathak. Aditya Birla Group spokeswoman Pragnya Rekhi was not available for comment on her mobile phone.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has no plans to support Pathak directly, according to Jan Willem Rosenboom, its senior program officer on water, sanitation and hygiene strategy. The organization has spent $150 million on toilets and sanitation in India since 2011 and will continue operating in the country, he said.
Convincing rural Indians to use toilets may prove a bigger challenge than building them, Rosenboom said. After centuries of practicing open defecation, some families refuse to end the cultural norm because using a toilet is sometimes associated with filth and low social status.
“Open defecation cannot end on the planet without it ending in India first,” Rosenboom said in New Delhi. “Beyond just toilets, India needs to tell its people that this behavior is not acceptable and is damaging to society.”
India has made some gains in the past 40 years, with 29 percent of households having access to a toilet in 2006, up from 1 percent in 1981, according to the World Bank. Even so, limited financial resources combined with a lack of political will at the state and federal level has hampered progress, Pathak said.
India spent 125.7 billion rupees on building toilets from 1999 to 2014, according to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, and allocated 140 billion rupees on water and sanitation in the 12 months ended March 2013. That’s equivalent to 0.1 percent of GDP, less than what Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran spent on sanitation and hygiene in 2013, according to a World Health Organization report.
“If India wants to end open defecation, the citizens of this country are going to have to do it,” said Pathak, adding that his organization is spending 4 million rupees to build 406 toilets in the village where the two girls were raped and murdered last month.
Pathak has worked to bring India toilets since 1968, when he joined an organization that provided relief for the lowest members of the Indian caste system, who were employed as toilet cleaners. Two years later, Pathak founded Sulabh and designed a toilet that has since been used around the globe.
Pathak’s toilet includes two tanks with holes that turn the excrement into fertilizer, he said, adding that they don’t require much maintenance. The model is patent free and can be used by anyone in the world without a fee.
“The pieces are there to solve this problem,” said Nikita Sud, an associate professor of development studies at the University of Oxford. “The government now needs to take those pieces and put them in place for India to become a safe society.”