In a rare honor, New York City declared April 14 this year as ‘Bindeshwar Pathak Day’ in recognition of the contributions made by the Indian social activist and ‘Sulabh International’ founder for improving the lives of people engaged in the “most dehumanising situation”.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio honored Pathak for his outstanding work to improve health and hygiene and ‘moving the world forward’. “Pathak has been an example of someone who saw a great injustice, saw something that to many people was impractical and permanent and had the creativity, energy, drive and hope to make the change,” he said at the ceremony on April 14 attended by Pathak, 73, himself. Pathak was presented with the New York Global Leaders Dialogue Humanitarian Award earlier this week.
He presented Pathak with the proclamation declaring April 14, 2016 as Bindeshwar Pathak Day, honoring Pathak for being a “pioneer” in advocating for human rights in India by campaigning for social reforms and developing innovative and environmentally-sound sanitation technologies. “This visionary humanitarian has improved quality of life for millions and increased opportunities for education and employment. I commend Dr Pathak for his outstanding work to improve health and hygiene, provide vocational training, promote gender equality and give dignity and hope to impoverished people in India and far beyond,” the proclamation read.
Sometime in 1968 during Mahatma Gandhi’s birth centenary celebrations in Bihar, Bindeshwar Pathak was asked by a celebration committee member to work for restoring the rights and dignity of India’s untouchables, if he really wanted to pay a tribute to Gandhi who launched a campaign against untouchability.
Pathank founded Sulabh International in 1970 in Bihar to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management and social reforms through education. Most importantly, it launched a method of building inexpensive toilets in villages, and stop the age-old practice of open defecation and the custom, under which the Untouchables were forced to carry night soil from bucket toilets on their heads to trash them at a dumping ground.
Today Sulabh has constructed nearly 1.3million household toilets and 54 million government toilets based on an innovative toilet design. Nearly 15 million people use these toilets daily. Pathak said Sulabh is also leading a movement to discourage manual cleaning of human waste, which essentially caused to be attached to Dalits in the past. So much is the social sigma that people from higher castes would not break bread with a Dalit.
“Legislation cannot stop the practice of untouchability. What one needs is social acceptance, I think we are gradually inching towards that goal as some villages have been established where untouchability is not practiced, there is no manual cleaning of toilets, and most importantly people from the once untouchable community have found new vocations,” Pathak said in an interview.
Still, he admitted it’s a long way to go as there are 120 million houses in India which have no toilets; people defecate in the open, and untouchability against Dalits exists in large part of rural areas and the is need to work hard to eradicate this practice and build toilets for everybody. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also has given a call to build toilets for all by the year 2019.
At Harvard Club, where he was honored, Pathak was described by the event organizers as a “great humanitarian” who for decades has enhanced the quality of life for millions. “His leadership is an example to us all,” a citation given to him said. The organizers noted that Dr Pathak, described by a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi as the “spiritual grandson of Gandhi”, stands at the highest level in embodying these rare qualities”.