Touching the “untouchables” in India


Dr Bindeshwar Pathak was an Indian sociologist, social entrepreneur and pioneer of sanitation in India, who died aged 80 in August 2023. His life’s work began in his childhood at aged seven, growing up in a Brahmin household in pre-independence India. India still reflected a caste system, which determined social status and people’s ability to aspire to fulfil their potential. Through pure, innocent curiosity he dared to touch the sari of the ‘untouchable’ woman who would come to their house selling bamboo utensils, just to see what would happen.

The ‘untouchables’ is a term that was banned in India in the 1950s but one that continued to powerfully shape society partly because of the ‘dirty’ work performed mostly by women in the Valmiki community, the lowest caste in society. They would clean the ubiquitous open, dry-pit toilets with their bare hands, whilst the rest of India slept at night. People from this caste were discriminated against and segregated – having their money washed before others would take it, their goods thrown to them by shopkeepers, and they were forbidden to draw water from wells.

To young Bindeshwar’s surprise, when he touched the ‘untouchable’ woman’s sari in front of his grandmother, nothing happened to him. But this innocent act caused uproar in his Brahmin upper-caste family. The priest was summoned and he demanded that the child be banished. Only at Bindeshwar’s grandmother’s protest, did the Priest moderate his punishment. Instead, he enforced a series of gruelling ‘purifying’ rituals on the young boy, including making him drink cow’s urine, to cleanse him of his karmic actions.

The reason for the initiative

By touching the sari of an ‘untouchable’ woman Bindeshwar had challenged a deeply held social, cultural and religious norm, which had enabled the othering and oppression for centuries of a large cohort of people and especially the women. His curiosity grew into a mission to improve the lives of the ‘untouchables’.

The approach

Bindeshwar studied sociology at university, and during his PhD research, to better understand the plight of the Valmiki community, he spent three months in Bihar living in the same impoverished conditions and seeing for himself the discrimination and cruelty they were forced to endure. He was profoundly moved by his observations and experiences and vowed to adopt Gandhi’s pledge of ‘Sarvodaya’ (welfare of all) to ‘liberate’ the Valmiki. His idea was simple, if Indians had flush toilets, the Valmiki would not be required to clean the dry-pit toilets. With training and support, they could find alternative employment and lead dignified lives. India would become cleaner and healthier with improved sanitation (as dry-pit toilets spread disease), and eventually more equal.

In 1970 he started a non-governmental organization – The Sulabh Foundation – to install cheap pour-flush toilets that he had designed. In 1974, they built India’s first public lavatory and over time the Foundation provided sanitation at railway stations and bus stops, where for a rupee, people could use the toilets. This revenue, in turn, subsidised the construction of smaller community toilets in villages and toilets in schools.

The impact

As the initiative spread, the Foundation created centres for the Valmiki women where they could learn to read and write, embroider, make candles and open bank accounts. By 2023, more than 200,000 women had been liberated in this way. The Foundation has built over 1.5 million toilets in India, which are used by 20 million people every day, and 32,000 toilets in more than 6000 schools. Over 50,000 volunteers in India support the centres and the Foundation’s work.

Key learning points

Together we have to be courageous and question long-standing social, cultural or religious norms that fail to honour our shared humanity.

Understanding the experience of others comes from ‘walking in their shoes’, in the way Bindeshwar did by living among the Valmiki in Bihar. Equally, this immersion into the world of the Valmiki gave Bindeshwar a felt understanding (empathy) of their plight and also ideas of what he could do to help (intelligent action).

The Global Compassion Coalition offers an opportunity for individuals and organizations to come together and initiate change in our health, care and social systems that will promote valuing, respecting and supporting the happiness and wellbeing of all people and our planet. Bindeshwar’s example demonstrates that hope comes from collective action to achieve positive change that benefits all of humanity. Our happiness is dependent on the happiness of all around us.


Bindeshwar Pathak realised that India’s future depended on toilets, Obituary, 24th August 2023, The Economist

The Sulabh Foundation

Translate »