A Sitting Mission, Meet India's Toilet Man

An estimated 2.3 billion people worldwide live without toilets. Nearly two-thirds of them are in India. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, a sociologist and NGO founder, is determined to do something about it.

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is commonly known as Toilet Man
Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is commonly known as Toilet Man
Jasvinder Sehgal

NEW DELHI — There's a celebration taking place in the small town of Marora, in the northern state of Haryana. Dozens of school girls sing. Boys shout out slogans. And at the center of it all is a huge squat toilet brought here by India's Toilet Man himself, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak.

Measuring six-by-three meters, the massive toilet is far too big for use by any human. But it does have a purpose: It's an educational tool, a difficult-to-ignore reminder of how important it is to use toilets. That's the message that Dr. Pathak, a sociologist and founder of the NGO Sulabh International, is working hard to spread in India, where according to a recent national census, one in every two people defecates in the open.

"We have constructed 1.5 million toilets in households, in both urban and rural areas," he says. "And in public spaces we have built about 9,000 toilets."

Simply put, toilets save lives, because without them, human waste is left in the open, spreading killer diseases like diarrhea and cholera, Dr. Pathak explains. They're also a priority for Indian women, offering them safety and dignity, which they lack when forced to defecate in the open, he adds.

Dr. Pathak, or Toilet Man, as he's commonly known, says decades of hard work is now making an impact, especially now that the national government, as of 2014, has committed to a "Clean India" campaign. "We have cleaned up this country," he says. "We have helped. Now the prime minister of India has this program to stop defecation in the open by 2019. Using our technology, the government has built about 70 million toilets."

Dr. Pathak's technology is what's called a "two pit pour-flush" toilet. They are ecologically sustainable, composting devices that don't even need to be cleaned. "One pit is used at a time and the other is kept stand by," he explains. "If the first one is full, we switch over to another one."

After time, the material collected in the first pit can be used for manure or fertilizer, or even used to generate energy. "The human excreta goes to a biogas digester and that is used for burning lamps or cooking food," Dr. Pathak explains. "That way it's fully recycled. We don't allow methane to go to the atmosphere, we burn it. So it helps to reduce global warming and thus prevent climate change."

Dr. Pathak is determined to share his knowledge of toilets far and wide. And he's set up a very unique place to do just that: a toilet museum, in the capital New Delhi. The museum traces the 4,500-year history of the toilet, and features exhibits from 50 countries.

"In 2014, Time magazine carried out a global survey to list the world's 10 weirdest museums. And this museum came in third," Dr. Bagheshwar Jha, the toilet museum's head curator, tells me.

The giant squat toilet in the village of Marora will eventually be displayed here, along with all kinds of replicas. Assistant curator Shikha Sharma points out her favorite one: the throne toilet, once the property of the French emperor Louis XIV. "The king had a constipation problem," Sharma explains. "He used to sit right here."

The toilet museum draws thousands of visitors every year. One of the museum goers, Raju Singh, 28, shows me his personal highlight. "It's a hilarious letter written in broken English to the colonial railway authorities," he explains. "The writer was traveling by a train, and had a strong urge to defecate but there was no toilet. His letter compelled the British authorities to put toilets on Indian trains."

India's Toilet Man has picked up where the colonial-era train passenger left off. Except rather than furnish trains, he wants to put a toilet in every single Indian home.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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