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India: More mobile phones than toilets

What an embarrassing imbalance says about a rising global superpower.

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.