The Sanitary Visionary And Me

PoopReport of the Year AwardComment Content Moderatora 10000+ points - Super Pooperb 9000+ pointsc 8000+ pointsd 7000+ pointse 6000+ pointsf 5000+ pointsg 4000+ pointsh 3000+ pointsi 2000+ pointsj 1000+ pointsk 500+ pointsl 100+ pointsm 1+ points - Newb

It's every author's dream that there exists some secret pocket of the world in which his work is fully appreciated. Realizing that dream is even more unlikely when the author's work has the word "poop" in its title. So it's a strange journey indeed that begins with founding a bathroom humor website and leads to a ceremonial honor by one of India's most important sanitary advocates.

Only 18% of Indians use toilets, according to the country's 2001 census. The 19th century wave of sanitary reform that formalized the west's bathroom habits didn't wash over India; today 13.6% of its urban population and 78.4% of its rural population still practice open defecation.

Change is coming, though -- on high from organizations like UNICEF and the UN, which declares 2008 to be the International Year of Sanitation; and locally from advocates like Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, whose Sulabh International has, since 1973, built 1.2 million household toilets and 6,500 community toilet blocks that serve 15 million people.

Dr. Pathak is often cited alongside Ghandi for his work to liberate India's untouchable caste. And yet there he was, a sanitary visionary, laying a flower garland on a guy who wrote a book about poop.

New Delhi guidebooks recognize Sulabh only for its toilet museum. But its broader mission is far more serious: liberating India's lowest caste from "the demeaning practice of physically cleaning and carrying human excreta." The staggering number of toilets it has built are the sole source of funding for its related ventures: free schools to teach trades to former scavengers, research into human waste as energy and fertilizer, and more.

Having found myself in Delhi on (non bathroom-related) business last month, I'd emailed Sulabh an introduction of myself and my book, hoping for little more than a tour of the museum and perhaps a few minutes of Dr. Pathak's time. Sanitary advocacy and bathroom humor may not mix, but perhaps they could intersect for a time.

But the welcome I received...! A short audience upon my arrival, first with Anita Jha, Sulabh's Managing Director, and then with Dr. Pathak. A formal welcome before an assembled crowd in Sulabh's conference center. A classroom-by-classroom tour of the school. An exhibit-by-exhibit tour of the museum. A model-by-model tour of the Sulabh's household toilets, with staff scientist Dr. P.K. Jha (no relation) explaining how their dual-pit pour-flush system allows waste to compost in one pit while the other is slowly filled. Over the three years the first pit lays untouched, bacteria transform the waste into compost -- turning waste into a resource while eliminating the need for human scavengers.

Dr. Jha led me to a nearby fertilizer bin. The photographer who had been trailing me since I arrived leapt to immortalize this moment: me lifting a sample to my nose, inhaling the sweet smell of pure earth.

From there, it was on to Dr. Pathak's office for a long conversation about his work. It began in 1968 when he moved in with a community of untouchables -- an unthinkable breach of taboo for a Brahmin. But Dr. Pathak saw human waste as Ghandi did: not a symbol of filth but a fundamental baseline that links all humanity.

Dr. Pathak, Ms. Jha, and I were joined for lunch by a man introduced as "one of the most famous astrologers in India."

My journey sees me returning to Delhi for a year beginning in November, in part to research a book about the future of toilets and sewers. Upon learning this, Dr. Pathak invited me to attend and speak at the 2007 World Toilet Summit, hosted this year in Delhi. The Summit will kick-start the Year of Sanitation's efforts to reduce by half the 2.6 billion people who don't have access to basic sanitation; my experience translating bathroom humor into sanitary awareness, it seems, is directly relevant to the Summit's goals. Jack Sim, president of the World Toilet Organization, often introduces himself as "Toiletman" -- intentionally eliciting an initial giggle to diffuse the taboo.

Human waste is a fundamental baseline; bathroom humor is a fundamental reaction to it.

But I didn't know this was Dr. Pathak's perspective when, standing with him on the dais in front of his assembled staff, the garland fresh on my shoulders, he frowned at the typed speech he was about to deliver. He turned to me, gestured to the title of my book on his paper, and asked, "What is ‘poop'?"

Before I could consider an answer, Ms. Jha leaned forward. "It's shit, sir," she informed him.

"Ah," he said. And then he proceeded to the lectern and gave this author the greatest honor of his career thus far.

You can see photos of Sulabh, Dr. Pathak, and more on my Flickr page.

8 Comments on "The Sanitary Visionary And Me"

healthy 1's picture
j 1000+ points

Very educational Dave. We take our sanitation system for granted. Just a mere 100 years ago, many diseases like Cholera, and Leptospirosis took high body counts.

It blows my mind that 100 years later, we have the internet, advanced medicine, and automobiles, yet other countries still don't have adequate sanitation.

The section about composting poop, really impressed me. Perhaps in the next decate, developed countries will jump atop the compost heap. The green building movement should help change the public's opinion on excrement.
"Two percent of the population think; three percent of the population think they think, and 95 percent of the population would rather die than think."

"Two percent of the population think; three percent of the population think they think, and 95 percent of the population would rather die than think."

Anonymous Coward's picture

Leave it to the West to save India from their own shit!

Anonymous Coward's picture

That's really incredible. Did the people in the audience speak English? The poop you touched REALLY didn't stink??

The Thunderous Crapper 63's picture
k 500+ points

The amazing thing about this is that I cannot imagine this nation WITHOUT toilets in droves. Has anyone ever EATEN Indian food? The stench factor of the dookies that this food produces ALONE screams for MORE toilets to be installed. I mean MY GOD open defecation, the foul stench of curry shit probably permeates the air no matter where you go. God Bless you Dave! Heres to a better India God Bless the toilet!
The Thunderous Crapper 63 Enjoying home toilet advantage since 2004!


daphne's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardSite AdminComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatore 6000+ points

And to think this all started with a picture of a polar bear taking a dump and a few good friends with poop stories.

Dave, you are a hard-working man. I salute you.

.....hugging bunnies since 1969

.....hugging bunnies since 1969

RoboCrap13's picture
l 100+ points

I'm reminded of the "Scrubs" musical episode where they sung "Everything comes down to Poo".

You have the right to remain Silent but Deadly....

You have the right to remain Silent but Deadly....

Mary Queen of Scats's picture
l 100+ points

It may sound melodramatic, but I honestly think the world would be a better place if their were more people like Dr. Pathak.

We don't think about poop in developed countries because we don't need to - our infrastructure takes care of it. But just imagine if you were forced, on a daily basis, to handle your own crap.

Man who stand on toilet seat is high on pot.

Bad kitty! Bathtubs are NOT litterboxes!

dookie monster's picture
m 1+ points - Newb

The only question I have is:
why aren't you being interviewed on either the Daily Show or the Colbert Report?
Either of these shows would give you and your book the exposure that you richly deserve.
I bet that Jon Stewart would be fascinated by your book and your trip to India.
Get yer agent/manager off the pot, Dave!

purveyor of the brown note...

purveyor of the brown note...

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