More Indians have access to a mobile telephone than a lavatory, according to the country’s latest household census which reveals a nation more concerned with consumer goods than essential services.
The census covers the last decade in which India’s economy has soared to become the second fastest growing in the world after China with sharp increases in the number of people who own televisions, cars and motorbikes.
But it has also revealed the scale of poverty which remains in millions of homes without electric lighting, access to clean water and dependent on cow dung fuel for cooking.
According to the findings, the number of homes with a lavatory of any kind jumped from 69 million in 2001 to 115 million in 2001, 16 million fewer than the 131 million homes which now have a mobile telephone.
In the 89 million homes which have an inside water closet—up from 34 million in 2001—only 11 per cent of them are connected to a piped sewer system.
The number of Indian families without access to any lavatory and forced to use open ground instead increased from 122 million families in 2001 to 130 million last year—almost half of the country’s 1.2 billion people.
The latest survey indicates the continuing use of ‘night soil carriers’ with 794,000 households using humans to remove their waste.
India’s Registrar-General voiced concern that Indians appeared to regard mobile phones a higher priority than basic sanitation and rejected suggestions that lack of government investment was to blame. “It is not a question of investment in the sector but of the mindset that needs to change cultural and traditional reasons and lack of education seem to be the primary reason for this unhygienic practice. We have to do a lot in these areas,” said C. Chandramouli.
He said the overall picture, however, showed significant improvements in standards of living throughout the country.
The number of homes with electric lighting jumped from 107 million in 2001 to 166 million in 2011—67 per cent of all households. Families without any lighting at all, however, increased from 614,000 in 2001 to 1.1 million last year.
Computer ownership was not recorded in 2001, but in 2011 15 million homes had a computer, 7.7 million of which also had access to the internet. The number of families with a television almost doubled from 60 million to 116 million in the last ten years.
Car ownership more than doubled from 4.8 million to 11.5 million but the rise in the number of homes with a motorbike or scooter was even sharper, up from 22.5 million in 2001 to 51.8m in 2011.
Those living in *pukka* or solid buildings increased while the number of those sheltering under thatched, grass or bamboo roofs fell from 53 million in 2001 to 37 million last year. The popularity of mud and cow dung flooring, which has antiseptic properties, increased in the same period by two million homes.
Sociologist Professor Vinita Bhatia of Xaviers College, Mumbai, said the victory of consumerist priorities over basic needs was in part the government’s fault.
“The data validates the perception that Indian society has become more consumerist after liberalisation of the Indian economy. If India’s are not spending on fulfilling their basic amenities, it’s a joint failure of the government and the society,” he said.
The poor expect the government to provide basic services like clean water and electricity, which they do not have the means to acquire, he said. But many were simply prepared “to sacrifice basic amenities for something which gives them an upper edge in consumerist society,” he added.