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When nature calls in India, phones are on hand November 8, 2013

Posted by southasiamasala in : Doron, Assa, India, Jeffrey, Robin , trackback

Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey

Election season has begun in India and media-savvy politicians are taking up the cause of toilets. India has many fewer toilets than mobile phones and this, some politicians agree, is a crying shame.

Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat and the leading opposition candidate for prime minister in next year’s elections, jumped on the toilet bandwagon this month. He told an audience of young people that although he was a leader of an uncompromising Hindu movement, he believed in ”toilets first, temples later”.

Officially, India has more than 900 million mobile-phone subscribers but fewer than 600 million toilets. With elections in five states due in November and national elections by next May, toilets and telecommunications are hot issues. In the past 10 years, Indians have fallen in love with the mobile phone, but fewer have the chance to use a toilet.

NGOs point out that effective toilets dramatically reduce child-mortality rates. Columnists write that ”India is drowning in its own excreta”. Proponents of a ”shining India” lament the bad publicity.

More than 600 million people defecate out of range of a sewerage system, according to the 2011 census. Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist, deplores this failure of the state.

”Half of all Indians have no toilet,” he told a newspaper in July. ”Poor people have to use their ingenuity, and for women that can mean only being able to relieve themselves after dark, with all the safety issues that entails.”

There is no mystery to the fact that telecommunications trump toilets in India. Compared with landline phone networks, mobile networks are easier and cheaper to build, and compared with digging sewers, building a mobile network is a doddle.

Capitalists don’t jostle for the privilege of constructing sewers, but they scrap like Kilkenny cats to build telecom networks. Sewers need the state, but the state in India connects only tenuously with the poor, who in turn are able to exert only occasional pressure on the state.

Florence Nightingale put her finger on the problem in 1861. She told the Sanitary Commission investigating the appalling health of Britain’s Indian army that ”the same neglect of water supply, drainage, etc, as used to exist” in England prevailed in India.

She concluded with perceptive outrage: ”In India, as at home, no good will be done unless it is made some competent person’s business to look to these things.”

What made a difference in Britain were strong local governments and growing awareness that bad sanitation brought diseases that affected the middle class and its children almost as much as the poor.

The difference between the old Western middle classes and India’s current middle class is that infectious diseases no longer pose an imminent threat. In the West, until a polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s, poor sanitation spread classless diseases. Today’s gated communities in India don’t worry about cholera, typhoid or polio. Only occasionally does dengue fever or malaria visit them, and to prevent such outbreaks, they spray pesticides around their enclaves.

K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, a seasoned analyst of urban India, notes that one of the few cities to make the most of huge grants for urban renewal was Surat in Gujarat ”where the municipal corporation is very much in command”.

Surat underwent an awakening of local government and public health after an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1994. Today, it claims to be one of India’s two or three cleanest cities. It may take an epidemic, such as those experienced in the West in previous eras, to awaken city-dwellers to the importance of sewers.

India’s gated communities run their own diesel generators, truck in water and pump sewage off the premises. They rely on themselves, not the state. The sight of their poor countrymen’s buttocks along railway lines and in fields in the morning is cause for embarrassment.

If toilets illustrate the separation between the masses and the state, mobile phones hook them up.

The juxtaposition of mobiles and toilets fascinates because the well-to-do see it as absurd. Why has high technology become affordable when old-fashioned public-health measures are absent? The answer, of course, lies in the profit to be derived from one and the fact that weak governments are unable to fulfil their responsibility for the other.

But having begun to enjoy the pleasure and power of mobile phones, might the poor do an Oliver Twist and start demanding items of comfort such as toilets and piped water? India’s impending election season will give them a brief opportunity to ask for more.

This article was first published in The Age, 24 October 2013.

Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey are authors of The Great Indian Phone Book: How the Cheap Cell Phone Changes Business, Politics and Daily Life. Doron works at the Australian National University in Canberra; Jeffrey at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.


1. Mark Jones - January 28, 2014

Data Stories
…on India, one chart at a time.

A ‘New Delhi based journalist’ has begun to mine the 2011 census and put the results up in map form. His recent ‘Toilet map of India’ very clearly shows the rural/urban and regional divides of access to toilets in India.

Check it out at http://datastories.in/blog/2013/09/09/a-toilet-map-of-india-2/