In India, Cellphones Abound, Toilets Don’t

Ravi Nessman, Seattle Times, October 30, 2010

The Mumbai slum of Rafiq Nagar has no clean water for its shacks made of ripped tarp and bamboo. No garbage pickup. 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 cellphone. Some have three.

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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.

Its estimated growth rate of 8.5 percent a year is among the highest in the world, but its roads are crumbling.

It offers cheap, world-class medical care to Western tourists at private hospitals, yet has some of the worst child-mortality and maternal death rates outside sub-Saharan Africa. {snip}

The cellphone frenzy bridges all worlds. Cellphones are sold amid the Calvin Klein and Clinique stores in India’s new malls and in the crowded markets of its working-class neighborhoods. {snip}

The Beecham’s cellphone dealer in New Delhi’s Connaught Place is overrun with lunchtime customers of all classes looking for everything from a $790 Blackberry Torch to a basic $26 Nokia.

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There were more than 670 million cellphone connections in India by the end of August, a number that has been growing by nearly 20 million a month, according to government figures. Yet U.N. figures show that only 366 million Indians have access to a private toilet or latrine.

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

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist credited with unleashing India’s private sector by loosening government regulation, talks about growth that benefits the masses of poor people and a burgeoning middle class of about 300 million.

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Private companies have tried to fill that gap, and Tata sells a $16 water purifier for the poor. Mafias provide water and electricity to slumdwellers at a cost far higher than what wealthy Indians pay for basic services.

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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 4-cent fee too expensive for many, most people either use a field or use toilets at work, says Santosh Thorat, 32, a community organizer.

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