More mobiles than toilets. Conclusion?

Posted on April 15, 2010  /  5 Comments

In an attempt to get attention in a hard market, the UN University has contrasted mobile penetration in India with toilet penetration in India. If telephones had been left to government, unlikely this contrast could have been drawn. So the conclusion? Get multiple parties to participate in building toilets.

Far more people in India have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet, according to a UN study on how to improve sanitation levels globally.

India’s mobile subscribers totalled 563.73 million at the last count, enough to serve nearly half of the country’s 1.2 billion population. But just 366 million people — around a third of the population — had access to proper sanitation in 2008, said the study published by the United Nations University, a UN think-tank.

“It is a tragic irony to think in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones,” so many people “cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet,” said UN University director Zafar Adeel.

Full story.


  1. Though we need improvement on sanitation facilities, i would like to tell those University Guys that a mobile phone can not be used by 4 or 5 members of the family like a ‘Toilet’. And the cost of a mobile phone is 10 to 20,000 times cheaper than the cost of a new ‘Toilet’. I hope those publicity oriented educated morons will understand this.

  2. Access to technology and access to basic public health facilities is an unrealistic comparison. Forget rural and look at the slum of Mumbai (Watch Slumdog Millionaire, if needed). The slum dwellers survive on illicit supply of power and water. They use home appliances according to their earnings. Almost everybody have mobile phone and the connections are certainly not illicit. But their sanitation shatters the sanity of development. Such contrast is pretty much common among the slum dwellers worldwide.

    The rural Indians, like billions of other Asian villagers, remain out of the power grid and water supply system. Yet they can afford to have a mobile phone or at least enjoy universal access to it. This is the only similarity between the slum dwellers and the villagers at the technology front. But their access to decent sanitation facility remains equally despicable.

    Cost is the biggest barrier to toilets. The UNU report cites a rough cost of $300 to build a toilet, including labour, materials and advice. It needs to be revisited. Rohan is right, “Get multiple parties to participate in building toilets.” The Indian government may use the USF, it collects from telecoms users, for rural toilets. That will possibly make lot more sense than the way USF is being spent!

  3. It is quite understandable to say that access to technology and access to basic necessities like health and education should not be compared. But is it right to say that? When the government wants to develop the country, what should it start with? High technology? Or basic necessities? In Asia, people will say that economic growth is the first thing. For that, technology is important aspect. However, the lack of basic health care and basic education will deteriorate the human capital which is also very important economic growth and development.

    And when the mobile are for individual use and the toilets are for household which usually constitutes 3 or 4 people in average, why can’t a family afford a toilet? Because it is more expensive to build the toilets than owning a mobile, should we go without toilets? No way. Right? If the public cannot afford, let government do it with the aid of the international organizations.

  4. @ Haymar
    If “High technology” attributes to telecoms, the public investment is certainly counterproductive. Governments ensure effective regulatory environment to stimulate investments and protect public interest. The private sector demystifies “High technology” and makes it a commodity instead. That’s what Muhammad Yunus did in 1997. And he never undermines, rather underscores, all basic necessities. He should be asked if the “Village phone” scheme has helped or hindered his crusade against poverty.

    Yunus has also introduced the concept of sharing a mobile phone. He began with “one phone in one village” and the market has now taken it to hundreds of thousands of phones in every village. It’s still growing and has a long way to go. The Teleuse@BOP research series of LIRNEasia unfolds strong evidences of mobile phones being shared across the developing Asia. The air smells quite different on the ground, which is hard to feel from the ivory tower of development.

    Phones were exorbitant yet the most sought-after urban utility until sectoral reforms swept across Asia. That’s not the case with toilets. Comparing the rural toilet and mobile penetration may have hit the headlines but lost the bottom-line simultaneously. The UN, however, doesn’t waste public funds alone.