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One man's mission to rid India of its dirtiest job

Even though manual scavenging was banned in India in 1993, thousands still perform the task of cleaning, by hand, human waste.

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"At first they felt uncomfortable coming here, but we wanted to give them a different perspective," says Suman Chahar, who runs the center.

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In one room, Lalita Nanda is making wicks for oil lamps in Hindu temples. The priests who buy them did not let Lalita into the temple until recently, she says, smiling.

One of the first things Pathak did with Alwar's scavengers was usher them into the town's biggest Hindu temple. He also took a group out to dinner at the Maurya Sheraton, a five-star hotel in Delhi.

The manager was so appalled he tried to stop the women entering. Pathak promised to pay for anything that was broken or stolen; nothing, of course, was; and as the party left, the manager apologized to them.

Sulabh's transformation of manual scavengers would not be possible without the other part of its work, the development of cheap hygienic toilet technology.

"The toilet is a tool of social change," declares Pathak, who defies the stereotype of the scruffy Gandhian activist dressed in rough-spun cotton. He is wearing, instead, a starched white pajama suit with a smart jacket; his hair is dyed black, and he wears a fine gold ring.

Born into a family of Brahmins – the highest of all the castes - in a village in Bihar, Pathak remembers, as a little boy, being intrigued by the notion that the ordinary-looking woman who sold kitchen utensils to his family could be "untouchable."

"So I touched her," he says, "Just to see. And my grandmother made me drink a mixture of cow urine, cow dung, and Ganges water." That combination is meant as both cleanser and punishment.

Later, Pathak joined a committee established to celebrate the centennial of Mahatma Gandhi's birth. During this period he was struck by what Mr. Gandhi had said about scavengers: "I may not be born again, but if it happens I will like to be born into a family of scavengers, so that I may relieve them of the inhuman, unhealthy, and hateful practice of carrying night soil."

Curious, Pathak went to live in a community of scavengers for three months. At this point, he says, he was not yet inspired by their cause. But two experiences changed this.

The first, he says, was when he saw a newly married girl being forced by her mother-in-law to clean human waste by hand. "I can't describe how awful her crying was," he says. The second was when he saw a small boy being attacked by a bull. People rushed to save him, but when someone cried out that he came from the Valamiki caste, they left him, and he was killed.

"These things still happen," says Pathak. "But we have everything we need to change things. It is so, so simple, if people only have the will."