While working on his PhD thesis, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak lived in a scavenger colony in Bihar for three months. As a child, Pathak was made to swallow cow dung, drink cow urine and bathe in a holy river to purify himself, all because he had come into contact with someone from the ‘untouchable’ community.
Manual scavengers are people from lower castes in India who clean, carry and dispose of human excreta from dry latrines or bucket toilets. It was while living with this community that Pathak vowed to liberate them from the wretched conditions that they were forced to live under.
Pathak came up with a simple yet effective technology called Sulabh Shauchalaya. These low-cost toilets solved the problem of open defecation and manual scavenging simultaneously. The features and mode of operation of this innovation have been explained in detail in the United Nations Development Programme website here.
With this basic technology, Pathak was able to liberate about a million scavengers and made over 600 towns across India scavenging-free. But the work is not yet complete as India still has 2.6 million toilets that require human excreta to be manually handled before it is decomposed.
The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in Delhi displays the development of toilet systems from the Indus Valley Civilisation in 2500 BC up to the 20th century. As you walk through the corridors, you will find replicas of toilets used by Mughal Emperor Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri, the Maharajas of Jaipur, King Louis XIII of France and Queen Victoria.
The museum is an initiative of the non-profit organisation started by Pathak called Sulabh International Social Service Organisation.
Recently, the organisation revealed the world’s biggest toilet pot model at a village in the state of Haryana, popularly called ‘Trump Village’. The toilet pot is 20 feet (six metres) tall and 10 feet (three metres) wide. The NGO hopes that the curiosity evoked by the toilet pot model will create awareness about sanitation issues in and around the village. The installation will eventually end up in the Delhi museum.
Although TIME magazine named them in their top 10 weirdest museums list, that’s exactly the kind of publicity that Sulabh International Museum of Toilets was going for. The eccentric exhibition includes a variety of unique models, such as the 18th-century toilet pot designed as a stack of books by Shakespeare, apparently used by the French royalty to mock the English.
The bizarre but fun displays initiate conversations around toilet and sanitation problems, a topic that’s still considered taboo in many Indian societies.
So, the next time you’re in Delhi, make sure that Sulabh International Museum of Toilets is on your list of must-visits. The outing will not only educate you on the history of toilets, but you will also be helping in generating awareness about a burning issue. After all, every small step counts.