Legacies, Challenges, and Toilets: A conversation with Dr. George T. Joseph

Dr. George T. Joseph is the man who revolutionized waste management in the Indian Railways and pioneered the creation of bio-toilets. However, he insists that ‘waste’ is a word that doesn’t serve any purpose in the English language anymore, as nothing is useless. Our Heads of Public Relations and Writing had an opportunity to interview this transformative icon.

On how the battle for bio-toilets began:

It all began on a train journey from Kochi to Chenganacherry on the 2nd of October, 2006. It was on that day that I took an oath to end fecal matter dumping by the Indian Railways. I had found the problem that would define my purpose, as the adage goes, “The problem is to find the right problem.” I contacted an old friend who is a retired Supreme Court justice, and with his advice, I assembled a legal team. And on the 3rd of November 2006, I filed a case against the Indian government, the Ministry of Railways and the government of Kerala. And finally, in the 2008 budget, the then Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav announced 4000 crores for the construction of bio-toilets. It was after this that I had the opportunity to meet the Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. He looked at me and said, “I know you, I got you the money!” I asked him if we could use the waste to produce electricity and he said, “Of course!”

On the success of his battle:

The green bio-toilets revolution has been an absolute success. Certainly, the current government deserves a great deal of credit. We have a lot of bright new ideas, such as a goods freight to pick up garbage and a railway bathroom coach. Now is the time to focus on waste management. Let’s link these ideas with Swacch Bharat. We need scientific research to allow for a monetary incentive to sell garbage. We need a Corporate Social Responsibility dimension to make the urban aristocratic elite conscious of this problem. In the next three years the states of Goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and the Union territory of Pondicherry must be comparable in cleanliness to Japan and the Scandinavian countries.

On his greatest inspiration:

It was a quaint day in Bangalore in 1980. I had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa. I walked up to her and asked if I could volunteer in Calcutta. She refused and insisted that I go home and help the people there. Dejected, I walked back. Just as she was about to get into the car, she sent an aide and asked me to travel with her. Perhaps Mother saw how sad I was and couldn’t see her son that way. At the end of the day, she hastily scribbled a letter and handed it to me. It read:

10th May 1980

Dear Brother Andrew,

Dr. Georgie is anxious to dedicate his life as a doctor to the poor. Kindly see him.

God Bless you

Mother Teresa

The next time I met Mother, was under far more trying circumstances. After the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, Mother came to heal the city with love and compassion. I was sent to the airport to receive her and we spoke about so much.

On his roots in Manipal:

Dr. TMA Pai used to call me the Grandson of KMC, as my father was in the first ever batch of Kasturba Medical College. Years ago, when my father heard of a medical college here, he sent in the money required to pay the fees. However, as regulatory approval was yet a while away, Dr. T.M.A. Pai wrote a letter to my father, offering to return the money. Ever the idealist, my father wrote back insisting that he believed in Dr. Pai’s vision and was confident that the college shall one day open its doors. And, that he would be the first to walk through them. His words came true, and a mere week after my parents’ marriage, KMC was open for business in 1953. My father became Dr. Pai’s pet student, the Editor of the first ever KMC Magazine and was a member of the KMC hocket team. I still have all the medals he won in the inaugural sports fest. My father was also involved in a rather storied part of Manipal’s legacy. Along with a group of his friends, they named a certain Chowk in the center of this town ‘Tiger Circle’.

On his vision for Manipal:

Manipal is destiny’s child- The heartbeat of a new and dynamic India. My father wished to see Manipal become a university. I want Manipal-Udupi to become a city, comparable to if not exceeding the metropolitan cities of India in its dynamism. Let the politicians follow you. Get rid of disposable cups and plastics, let that be a start. Manipal can attract tourists with an alumni house or images and factoids in the streets. Light up your town, make it your home. Look around and find your problem.

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