India: More mobile phones than toilets

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.

Agencies focus on the numbers — targets to build a certain number of toilets each year. Only recently have NGOs and government agencies directed their attention to the outcomes of the programs. In some backward areas, the education, building and motivation cycle can extend up to five years from start to finish.

Both government and NGOs are trying new approaches. Instead of low-cost toilets, some agencies are providing tiled, well-lit infrastructure to draw users. In another project, shaming non-users has worked. A strong, women-led door-to-door campaign has emerged successful in some parts of the country. Micro-loans are supplementing government grants to build toilets.

In urban communities, non-profits are working on innovative models. In the western Indian city of Pune, a mobile service cleans up community toilets for a free. In other urban pockets, mobile toilets travel from slum to slum offering pay-and-use toilets.

As for mobile phone usage, some analysts project that India could well have a billion mobile phone subscribers within the next 10 years. Contrastingly, in India’s capital New Delhi, workers racing to complete road and stadium projects for this year-end’s Commonwealth Games have little or no toilet facilities at all. Outrageous as that may seem, building toilets and other basic infrastructure appears to be one of the biggest problems standing in the way of India’s economic advancement.