Ishwarbhai Patel was the role model to my role models. Today, on the first anniversary of his death, we remember him fondly.
In a country where ritual hygiene is sacrosanct and actual hygiene is observed mostly in the breach, Ishwarbhai devoted his life to the rational, hygienic management of human waste. Recipient of India’s Padma Shri for distinguished service to the country, among many other national and international awards, Ishwarbhai’s greatness and achievements were certainly widely admired. But, true to his modesty and good humor, he got more pleasure from his more humble nickname, “Mr. Toilet”.
Ishwarbhai was as matter-of-fact as could be about all matters of human waste. Within the first five minutes of the first time we met, he advised me how much my average daily dump weighed in grams – I forget the number – and added that it was likely more dense than the average Indian feces, because the Western diet includes more refined and processed foods. This was typical conversation, and there was nothing casual about it. It was part of Ishwarbhai’s mission. Having made sanitation his life’s work, he could hardly afford to be abashed in discussing these things. Moreover, he understood that the polite refusal of most people to talk about human waste entailed a pernicious complicity in the epidemic of debilitating and frequently lethal diarrheal diseases in India. “How can we solve a problem people are too embarrassed to talk about sensibly?” he complained.
It is quite true that sanitation was a lifelong passion for Ishwarbhai; but it is equally true that he was driven into the field by higher ideals of service and a sense of need. Ishwarbhai was a Gandhian of unusual character: one who not only celebrated Gandhi-ji’s philosophy, but actually rolled-up his sleeves to do the hard work of domestic development which Gandhi-ji saw as essential for successful swaraj, self-governance. Indeed, Ishwarbhai said that Gandhi-ji’s famous line, “Sanitation is more important than independence,” was central to his decision to begin studying solutions to human waste management. “We had won independence,” said Ishwarbhai, “but it was as if we had forgotten everything that Gandhi-ji had taught us. No one was doing this work. So I did it.”
It was never clear to me whether Ishwarbhai had ever received any formal training in engineering; but his approach to toilet design was absolutely rigorous. He could speak endlessly about the geometry, materials, and user-interface. He was constantly prototyping and testing. He even developed a simple, low-cost solution for the vexing problem of the abundance of shit on the tracks at railway stations. Despite the well-posted admonitions not to use the train toilets (essentially stainless steel holes in the floor) when the train is at a station, this is precisely the time when most people will use them, because squatting is less precarious when the train is not rocking and bouncing its way down the tracks. Ishwarbhai developed a holding tank beneath the toilet openings, with a hatch operated by a simple governor. When the train got to speed, the hatch would open automatically and remain open until the train slowed again. While the engineering won praise from Indian Railways, it has never been implemented. “There is plenty of money to line [the bureaucrats’ and politicians’] pockets, but not enough to do this simple thing,” Ishwarbhai told me nearly a decade ago.
In 1969, Ishwarbhai assumed the directorship of the Safai Vidyalaya (Sanitation Institute) of the Harijan Sevak Sangh at the Gandhi Sabarmati Ashram – which includes and awesome toilet museum! – and, in 1985, founded Environmental Sanitation Institute (ESI) for the broad dissemination of his accumulated social research and engineering development. Like any good engineer, Ishwarbhai keenly recognized that the chief impediment to better sanitation was not immature technology. “I’m not Abdul Kalam,” he told me – his funny way of saying, “Toilet design is not rocket science.” The problem has been the failure to create a broad-based social transformation. For Ishwarbahi, this meant starting at the bottom of the pyramid, improving sanitation for the poorest of the poor. After all, they are the ones least likely to have access to hygienic facilities and those who suffer most from the epidemic of water-borne diseases related to poor sanitation.
I recall another story he told, which seems to have been formative in his understanding of the need to change popular thinking about hygiene, both on a social and microbiological level. He had been helping street-sweepers when he was spotted by an auntie from the community. She was incensed that he had not only become “unclean” himself by handling the brooms of the Dalits (untouchables or, as Gandhi-ji and Ishwarbhai would say, Harijans), but that he risked infecting others as well. So she washed his hands with water from a filthy bucket that had been used for carrying cow dung, and then completed the purification by touching a piece of her gold jewelry to his hands.
Ishwarbhai’s work continues in the institutions he built and served and through the many talented people he inspired with his passion and compassion.