Toilet Man Of India
“To build toilets is easy, but to shift people’s mind and hearts is the real work. Software is more important than hardware.” – Ishwar Patel
Ishwar Patel started volunteering with Gandhi’s Sewadal at the age of 12. He witnessed the taboo surrounding the community of manual scavengers who gather human waste. These night soil men are one of the most marginalized and exploited communities in our country. Ishwar was so moved by a painful incident he experienced that he decided to consciously dedicate his life towards improving the sanitary conditions in India and eradicate the taboo of ‘untouchability’ which is still prevalent in India.
Even today there are more than 2.6 billion people globally, who don’t have toilets. The river Ganges itself has, 1.1 million liters of raw sewage being dumped into it every minute. This number would have been much higher, if not for the constant efforts of Ishwar. He built over 2,00,000 toilets across the riverine bank through the ‘Safai Vidyalaya’ initiative at the Gandhi Ashram and helped launch 118 organisations to work in elevating the sanitation standards across the country.
Ishwar Patel was scientifically oriented. He based his decisions on rationality and thorough analysis. He surveyed the habits of the rural Indians and designed accordingly, a unique toilet system to serve their needs, while maintaining hygienic conditions. For instance, he observed that the village women did not use the constructed four-walled toilet since this meant that they could not, unlike previously, walk together long distances to farms and have private, women-only community time. By analyzing such habitual and societal oriented interactions in the rural communities, Ishwar introduced in the toilets, “windows” and an “oatlo” (community space) outside for such community interactions to continue.
He has constructed outside his office, a ‘toilet park’ that showcases his myriad designs. He would often exclaim animatedly that, “People have rose gardens, but we have a toilet garden.” In fact his ideas were so brilliant that commercial entrepreneurs made millions by selling his designs, he however, refused to patent them. This was because he wanted these toilets to be accessible to even the poorest of Indians. Ishwar Patel served as the president of the Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh, managing trustee for Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, director of Environmental Sanitation Institute and founder-president of Manav Sadhna Trust-Gandhi Ashram.
His low cost village sanitation and toilet designs were also adopted by many developing countries. Ishwar has won practically every major award from Padma Shri to Mahatma Gandhi Award. He died on December 26, 2010. He was respected and loved so widely; that there were over ten thousand people attended his funeral at the Gandhi Ashram. The government officials had to shut down the streets to manage the traffic flow. A picturesque, almost philosophical picture presented itself during this mournful day. The richest men of the country stood next to the poorest, those ostracized by the society for being manual scavengers stood next to the elites. Students, politicians and even next door neighbors stood paying homage to this great man. Ishwar Patel was a hero. He always lived by the philosophy of creating heaven wherever one is.