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India: More mobile phones than toilets

What an embarrassing imbalance says about a rising global superpower.

A rickshaw driver talks on his cell phone as he rides past a billboard outside a railway station in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, May 26, 2009. (Ajay Verma/Reuters)

BANGALORE, India — In populous India, more people have access to mobile phones than to toilets.

Shocking as that statistic may be, a combination of social, cultural and economic factors are at play, depriving millions of Indians access to better sanitation.

On the one hand, India has some 565 million mobile phone connections, covering roughly half the country’s 1.2 billion people. It is a country whose tech-savvy workforce provides sophisticated tech know-how to the rest of the globe.

But only 366 million people, a third of its population, have the use of a proper toilet, according to a recent study by the United Nations. The rest defecate in the open, leading to the stereotype that India is a dirty, smelly country.

The tragic irony brings to the fore the sanitation challenges in a poor country. Borrowed Western sanitation ideas, power- and resource-intensive as they are, simply cannot be replicated in India, says Sunita Nadhamuni, CEO of Bangalore-based non-profit Arghyam, which works extensively in water and sanitation.

So, government agencies as well as NGOs are looking towards context-sensitive models where energy and water usage is low, and waste disposal simplified. “Expensive waste water treatment plants and centralized sewage systems are not for a country like ours,” said Nadhamuni. Arghyam supports several eco-friendly sanitation projects across the country.

In many parts of rural India, a toilet is not just about the infrastructure but about age-old traditions. “It is not ‘build-and-they-will-come,’” said Y.D. Mathur, the Lucknow-based advisor to India’s leading sanitation NGO, Sulabh International. Mathur, a former UNICEF official, says the biggest challenge is bringing about behavior change in rural communities. A poverty-stricken family would rather build a house or a shop and rent it out rather than have a toilet. And then they would continue going out to the fields for their daily rituals.

In many villages, government-funded toilets lie in various states of disuse. Officials admit that half the toilets built under government schemes or incentives may be in a state of disrepair. Many of them are low-cost constructions, dark and dingy and poorly maintained. As surveys reveal, many users have the burden of fetching their own water so, shortly after the toilet is constructed, it is declared un-usable.

The linkages between good sanitation, improved public health and economic growth are long-proven. But government agencies and NGOs are confounded by how to help India's vast, illiterate masses make those same connections.

“In southern state of Karnataka, for instance, NGOs first identify communities, propound the use of toilets and then build the infrastructure on demand,” said Arale Mahadevappa, a former government official who is a consultant in low-cost rural solutions.

Many grandiose government schemes promoting good sanitary habits in both urban and rural India are usually lost in translation.