DELHI, India—Ah, the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets! How’s that for a place to take the wife and kids on a Sunday afternoon?
It’s hard not to smirk when this museum’s name is first mentioned. It sounds like a roadside attraction, something you find just a ways down the road from the World’s Oldest Rug (St. Augustine, Fla.) and the World’s Largest Ball of Twine (Cawker City, Kan.).
But when you visit the museum, the smirk evaporates. It’s not the museum itself—a rather small collection of lavatory oddities that includes a replica of Louis XIV’s throne with a hidden commode that allowed the monarch to evacuate his bowels while giving audience—that changes a visitor’s mind. Instead, it’s the trip to the museum through the streets of Delhi, India. There, where 18 percent of the population still defecates openly and where 20 percent of children who die under the age of five do so from water-borne diseases, the true purpose of the museum becomes evident: It’s a way to lure in visitors and introduce them to the Sulabh International Social Service Organization and its Sulabh Sanitation Movement.
Sulabh, which translates to “simple” in Hindi, is the brainchild of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, a Brahmin snoot-cum-egalitarian who has transformed the lives of millions of impoverished people across South Asia with the introduction of low-cost composting latrines. Because they require little or no water to operate, the latrines solve the problem faced by poor cities and rural areas alike: no sewage system.
Sulabh has also rescued and retrained more than 120,000 “scavengers,” members of the low-ranking Dalit caste in Indian society whose lifelong job is to empty household latrines, carrying the contents away in buckets on their heads. The practice is now illegal but continues in many rural areas. Sulabh’s organization offers scavenger families vocational training and formal education.