Technology and Toilets

24 04 2010

Pic source: Oh Wow!

If you were to have a standard class train ticket in India, you’d probably encounter a toilet like the above. If you’re of a typical Western sensibility, you’d probably find it quite unpleasant. But you should count yourself lucky. According to a recent report by the UN, only 31% of the Indian population have access to a proper toilet. That’s not all however, the thing that really grabbed the headlines was the fact that the same report indicated a mobile phone penetration of around 45%.

In my last post I talked about how every now and then I get a big reminder of India’s scale. With that in mind, it’s worth referencing what this means in real numbers. The basic truth is that there are 179 million (or 17.9 crore in local parlance) more mobile phones in India than there are people with access to basic sanitation. Further, there are somewhere in the region of 800 million Indians without access to a proper toilet. This can only reflect badly on Indian governance.

The crux of the matter is that private industry in India is forging ahead. In a country this vast, mobile phone infrastructure is not easy to build – particularly in the face of a complex and restrictive regulatory framework and a vicious price war (though admittedly, the telcos only have themselves to blame for the latter) – despite these not insignificant headwinds, mobile networks and handset manufacturers have been able to reach, pretty much, right across the country.

What this report highlights beyond doubt is that the public sector has been markedly less successful in putting the necessary infrastructure in place. Even the very basic sanitation and refuse services that you expect a government to provide are lagging way behind the commercial development of India Inc. In the medium term, this can only negatively effect India’s GDP growth. This recent McKinsey report (registration required) shows how desperate urban India is for a focussed programme of regeneration and how it lags behind rivals such as China and South Africa in per capita investment. That’s before you even start to think about the conditions of vast swathes of rural India.

I’m not saying that building sewers, refuse systems, roads and the like is easy. Of course it isn’t. But India, rightly, has pretensions to be one of the major global powers in the next 50 years or so. If it wants to achieve that, it can’t afford to continue lagging so far behind the other pretenders to the throne in terms of raising the basic standards of living for the majority of its vast population.

I’m a social democrat at heart and as such I’m certainly no advocate of privatisation of public services. But I can’t help but wonder whether if Tata or Reliance had been in charge of bringing a proper system of sanitation to the Indian masses over the last ten years or so, there wouldn’t have been significantly more progress.

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