India: land of many cell phones, fewer toilets

Rafiq Nagar, Mumbai. Every family has a cell phone, but no safe sanitation. Photo: Guy Walder, http://www.guywalder.com

In the wake of President Obama’s visit to India, AP journalist Ravi Nessman writes that “he will find a country of startlingly uneven development and perplexing disparities, where more people have cell phones than access to a toilet”.

Interestingly, Nessman ends his article by suggesting that the spread of cell phones could empower slum dwellers to demand better sanitation services.

The Mumbai slum of Rafiq Nagar has no clean water for its shacks made of ripped tarp and bamboo. No garbage pickup along the rocky, pocked earth that serves as a road. No power except from haphazard cables strung overhead illegally.

And not a single toilet or latrine for its 10,000 people.

Yet nearly every destitute family in the slum has a cell phone. Some have three.

[…]

It is a country buoyed by a vibrant business world of call centers and software developers, but hamstrung by a bloated, corrupt government that has failed to deliver the barest of services.

While India now has more than 670 million cell phone, writes Nessman, only 366 million Indians have access to a private toilet or latrine, leaving 665 million to defecate in the open.

At least tap water and sewage disposal — how can we talk about any development without these two fundamental things? How can we talk about development without health and education?” says Anita Patil-Deshmukhl, executive director of PUKAR, an organization that conducts research and outreach in the slums of Mumbai.

Private companies like Tata, which sells a 749 rupee ($16) water purifier for the poor, are trying to fill gap. Slumdwellers are often forced to rely on the water mafia who provide water at a cost far higher than what wealthy Indians pay.

The government is spending $350 million a year to build toilets in rural areas but the country needs about 120 million more latrines.

In the slums of Mumbai, home to more than half the city’s population of 14 million, the yearning for toilets is so great that enterprising residents have built makeshift outhouses on their own.

In Annabhau Sathe Nagar, a raised latrine of corrugated tin empties into a river of sewage that children splash in and adults wade across. The slum in east Mumbai has about 50,000 residents and a single toilet building, with 10 pay toilets for men and eight for women — two of which are broken.

With the wait for those toilets up to an hour even at 5 a.m., and the two-rupee (4-cent) fee too expensive for many, most people either use a field or wait to use the toilets at work, says Santosh Thorat, 32, a community organizer. Nearly 60 percent have developed piles from regularly waiting to defecate, he says

Still, conditions are far worse in Mumbai’s Rafiq Nagar slum, home to an army of ragpickers.

A pungent brew of ripe garbage and sewage blows through the trash-strewn streets [and] children, half clothed in rags, play hopscotch next to a mysterious gray liquid that has gathered in stagnant puddles weeks after the last rainfall.

Just beside the shacks, men and women defecate in separate areas behind rolling hills of green foliage that have sprung up over the garbage […].

Khatija Sheikh, 20, splurges to use a pay toilet in another neighborhood 10 minutes away, but is never sure what condition it will be in.

“Sometimes it’s clean, sometimes it’s dirty. It’s totally dependent on the owner’s mood,” says Sheikh, whose two young children use the street. Her home is less than five feet from an elevated outhouse built by a neighbor that drops sewage next to her walls.

Residents, who are forced to rely on the water mafia, are rife with skin infections, tuberculosis and other ailments.

A large blue barrel outside a home is filled with murky brown water, tiny white worms and an aluminum drinking cup. To fill up two jerry cans costs between 40 ($.90) and 50 ($1.10) rupees a day, about one-third of the average family’s earnings here.

“If the government would give us water, we would pay that money to the government,” said Suresh Pache, 41, a motorized rickshaw driver.

Instead, it has issued demolition notices throughout the slum, which sits illegally on government land. Pache, whose home was razed 10 times, jokes that the destruction is the only government service he can count on.

Yet now slumdwellers are widely benefiting, in both their work and social life, from the improved communications that cheap cell phones and cut-rate calling plans are offering.

In fact, the spread of cell phones may end up bringing toilets.

R. Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Tata Sons, one of India’s most revered companies, says the rising aspirations of the poor, buttressed by their growing access to communications and information, will put tremendous pressure on the government to start delivering.

People already are starting to challenge local officials who for generations answered to no one, he says.

“I think there are very, very dramatic changes happening,” he says.

Source: Ravi Nessman,  AP / Bloomberg Businessweek, 31 Oct 2010

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2 responses to “India: land of many cell phones, fewer toilets

  1. Great post. While we clearly have major water/sewer infrastructure challenges in this country (US), this puts it in perspective.

  2. Pingback: water and sewer in India | Metro DC Utilities Blog

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