The fallacy of comparing toilets in homes and mobile telephone penetration

Posted on October 19, 2011  /  2 Comments

I was too gentle the first time. I thought the UN University was taking a cheap short cut to get publicity in the tough Indian media market. But if people are talking about this comparison of toilets and mobiles one year later, it appears that the cheap shortcut has been effective, more effective than I thought.

Mobiles are personal devices; toilets are generally a household amenity. Except in Mukesh Ambani’s house, the number of toilets is generally lower than the number of people living in the house. There is no way one can directly compare the number of mobile SIMs, which is what TRAI reports, with the numbers of toilets in a meaningful way.

If one wants a legitimate mobile/phone to toilet comparison, what one has to do is work with data from the demand side: census or representative-sample household surveys. I have been looking at the Sri Lanka Household Income and Expenditure Survey for 2009-10. It has data on whether households have mobiles, fixed phones or both, along with data on toilets for exclusive use of the household. Here is analysis.

It is only in the richest province, the Western Province that contributes around half the GDP, that the number of households with phones comes even close to the number of households with toilets for exclusive use. You could say this is Sri Lanka, and therefore the toilet numbers are high. My point is not to quibble about that. The issue is the error of comparing what cannot be compared. What can be compared are toilets in households and phones/mobiles in households. If that is done, India will not look too bad. But on the other hand, the UN University will not get media coverage.


  1. The Development Circle — by which I mean the charmed set of people comprising mostly researchers and civil society activists who are into do-gooding for the poor — has a one-track, unimaginative approach to their own notion of development. They insist that people living in poverty must first meet their basic needs of food, shelter, medicine and sanitation before such people can even consider other other amenities including communications. Many people at the bottom of the pyramid themselves don’t share this narrow view. This ‘deviation’ from the lofty ‘prescription’ rather annoys the Development Set, which then calls poor people names such as ‘uneducated’ or ‘misdirected’ — suggesting such people are not able to choose ‘what is good for them’!

    Some years ago, it was fashionable to compare the number of television sets and toilets in India, which too is an unrealistic comparison. Unicef was leading this line of talk, which other opinion leaders picked up – see example here from 2003:

    Perhaps we should reopen the definition of ‘basic needs’. Useful in this context is a remark attributed to Nelson Mandela. In 1995, one year after he became President and a year after Vodafone and MTN started mobile phone services in South Africa, he had called communications a basic need. This is mentioned in “You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones are Connecting the World” by Nicholas P. Sullivan (John Wiley & Sons, 2007). See page on Google Books at: