Even after much rhetoric, legislation, and several programmes, social equity in India remains a long distance from its desired goals. It has been estimated that approximately 60 percent of the total urban population is not covered under any sanitation schemes and that a quarter of those who do have access to toilets use dry privies, involving the physical removal of human excreta by a class of people referred to as scavengers. The scavengers remain at the lowest rung of the socio-economic hierarchy, shunned and ostracized by the rest of society on account of their sub-human occupation.
It was to address this inequity that Sulabh International (previously called Sulabh Shauchalaya Sanstha) was founded by a sociologist, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, with the objectives of changing the existing social order through stimulating a shift in the sanitation habits of the urban poor; making available low-cost and appropriate toilets; and upgrading the social status of scavengers by developing their capacity for alternate occupations.
Set up in 1970, upon developing the Sulabh Shauchalaya (translated “easy toilet), the organization set about converting dry privies into pour-flush latrines. Over time the latrines came to be widely accepted not merely because of the low cost of construction but the ease of construction, low water requirements, absence of air pollution, and the production of manure and biogas.
The success in acceptance led to its expansion in terms of construction of individual toilets to a wider population base and the introduction of public toilet complexes. While public toilets already existed before Sulabh introduced their system, Sulabh deviated from the traditional service approach by providing maintenance of the facility through a charge levied for its use. The pay and use system, although not without its problems especially in permanent settlements, has nevertheless proven to be far more effective than the traditional system due to a continued involvement of the implementing agency in maintenance which ensures that facilities remain in a clean and usable state.
In parallel to the provision of sanitation, Sulabh undertook the liberation and rehabilitation of scavengers, to respond to the issues of social equity in a coordinated manner. The strategy to address scavengers aimed at one level at reducing the demand for scavenging by converting dry privies into pour flush latrines, and at another level at reinserting the services of scavengers into society by training the scavengers and rehabilitating them into alternate occupations.
The Sulabh – government partnership
From the outset, and through the entire evolution of the organization and its work, Sulabh has worked in collaboration with the government. This focus has not only constituted the backbone of the Sulabh movement but contributed substantially to its own success and the success of the sanitation movement per se in the country. Through this collaboration Sulabh has been able to bring about an acceptance of its work, and bring it to a meaningful scale of operational influence and policy and make sanitation a part of the national mandate. No less significant has been the impact on local authorities, who were previously unable to provide this service, adequately and efficiently.
Apart from the close cooperation with government agencies at various levels, another key aspect of the operation of Sulabh has been its entrepreneurial approach, deviating from the traditional norms of agencies working in social action. Sulabh has responded to the market, and not been shy of competing in the same. This approach has obviated the need for dependence on external grants and made Sulabh a self-financed organization. The financial independence brought with it the freedom of choice of work and the ability to employ professional expertise.
The reverse side of this, however, has pointed to concerns relating to an inevitable shift in focus from people to monetary issues. Working around an entrepreneurial approach throws open the potential for exploitation and harassment on account of monetary dealings, and Sulabh has faced its share of criticism in this regard. In this context, Sulabhs need to involve the community in a wider role than at present gains importance.
The links with the government combined with the self-generated financial strength resulted in a growth of Sulabh that was viewed by some as turning into a threatening power. This perception led to resentment from many directions and cracks in the government-Sulabh relationship at different levels. Sulabh was perceived to be using its position to affect the working of other smaller voluntary organizations and influence the government at higher levels as a result of its position. However, with the growth of the movement in the country ad the entry of several other organizations in this work, Sulabh is heading towards a more balanced partnership with the government.