Every morning, in nearly every Indian village and town, a caste of Indian men and women come to the homes of the well-to-do and carry away buckets of human waste on their heads. The work of these Balmikis, or scavengers, once moved Mahatma Gandhi to take up the work himself, to shame Indians into rejecting this centuries-old traditional practice and to push for modern sanitation.
"I may not be born again," Gandhi told his followers, "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."
It is one of the astounding contradictions of modern India, and a fact notably missing from the ruling party's current feel-good ad campaign, that this "inhuman" practice continues even today. At a time when growing numbers of urban and even rural Indians own mobile phones and drive expensive foreign cars, where Indian software engineers are busy creating the "next big thing," and where Indian rocket scientists today are planning a joint US-Indian mission to the moon, more than three quarters of the nation's citizens live without access to a simple toilet.
Perhaps the biggest champion of proper sanitation is a well-born group of men and women with an idea: to bring proper sanitation to the masses, and social justice to India's most benighted citizens.
Founded in 1970 by a high-caste Brahmin, Bindeshwar Pathak, the Sulabh International Social Service Organization has built more than a million household toilets, and helped nearly 60,000 Balmiki-caste Indians obtain the skills and education to move on to more fulfilling lives.
"The question is not money. If you used local materials, you could build this toilet for the cost of a radio, just 20 British pounds, 1500 rupees, 35 US dollars," says S. Ramachandran, a retired engineer who now consults for Sulabh International. The toilet he is referring to is a simple canvas and wood shed around a simple Asian squat-type toilet that empties into a composting pit. "The real question is education."
Like many groups with a cause, the workers at Sulabh are earnest and dedicated to their cause. But they also have a sense of humor.
Consider the Sulabh Institute's Museum of Toilets. Tucked away in a working class neighborhood on New Delhi's southwestern side, the Toilet Museum features exhibits donated by some 60 countries, and combines high ideals with low humor to get its point across.
"You must be knowing about the rivalry between the French and the British, sir," says the museum's tour guide, Sanjay Kumar. He places his hand on a wooden seat built in the shape of a book. "This is a toilet made by a French person who did not respect the Britisher's favorite writer, Mr. William Shakespeare." Sure enough, on the side of the book-shaped table is Shakespeare's name on the "binding." On the top of the book there is a hole.
"This is just a model, sir," Mr. Kumar says, in case the guest is offended.
But while humor is part of the Sulabh International approach, India's sanitation problem is no laughing matter. Only 252 out of the 5,000 medium size towns and cities in India have sewage systems; some of these operate so poorly that the sewage is simply dumped untreated into rivers. As a result, nearly 89 percent of all Indians either defecate in the open, or use temporary latrines or substandard community toilets.
Lack of modern sanitation comes with a cost. Nearly 600,000 Indian children die each year of ailments linked to poor sanitation. The UN's World Development Report of 1993 ranked India slightly above sub-Saharan Africa in terms of infectious diseases.
Next to the toilet museum, Sulabh is putting its ideals to work in a public school, where about 400 lower-caste children receive the usual mix of reading, writing, and arithmetic, along with vocation training in tailoring, electrician work, fashion design, computers, and audio-equipment and television repair. Through education and training, Sulabh claims to have "liberated" some 60,000 Balmikis from scavenging work. Nearly 55,000 of them are now "activists" in their communities, educating others about the need for proper sanitation.
And like any group of tinkering scientists, the men and women at Sulabh couldn't help improving the ancient toilet for modern times. Sulabh brings ingenuity to solving the sanitation problem, with the invention of a composting toilet with two separate pits.
"The whole idea is to save water," says Ramachandran. "Today, we're taking good water from the river and using it to flush toilets, which makes the water dirty. Then we use expensive treatment techniques before dumping it back into the river. Instead, why not treat it at the source?"
It takes 10 people two years to fill up one pit. Once a pit is filled up, the refuse is diverted to the second pit, allowing the full pit to slowly dry out and break down the human refuse into composted manure that is safe enough to use in agriculture and even household vegetable gardens.
By the end of two years, the manure is safe enough to handle.
Mr. Ramachandran grabs a few pieces of manure and - alarmingly - smells them. "After one and a half years, it's fertilizer, there no harm in it at all," he says, handing the manure to a visitor. "There's not even any smell," he adds. "Is there?" The visitor agrees there is not.
The tinkering doesn't end there. Sulabh has engineered systems to capture methane gas from their larger public toilets and use it for running generators and for cooking gas. Some of this technology has also been deployed by Sulabh staff in neighboring countries, such as Nepal. This year, Sulabh plans to take its two-pit toilet technology to that most devastated of countries, Afghanistan.
Back at the toilet museum, Mr. Kumar notes that India has not always had a sanitation problem. Back in 2500 BC, the heyday of the Indus Valley civilization, residents of cities like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro had access to public sewage systems that in many ways are better than those in modern India. And unlike other civilizations of the same time period, household toilets were not something reserved for the rich. Even poor and middle class Indians had toilets then.
Recapturing that egalitarian spirit will be a Herculean task, Kumar admits, one that is as difficult as changing the sanitation habits of far too many Indians. "The sad fact, sir, is that in rural areas, people prefer open defecation," says Kumar. "And the best way to solve that is education."