Open Defecation: India’s Health Hazard of the Poor
“Open Defecation: India’s Health Hazard of the Poor” (source: Borgen Magazine)

I’ve written about housing standards a number of times recently (see here, here, and here) but there’s arguably no sharper focus than the oft-repeated finding that a half to two thirds of people in India don’t have access to a toilet. This is frequently contrasted with the higher level of mobile phone ownership and made more compelling by pointing out that those who don’t use a toilet defecate in the open:

In populous India, more people have access to mobile phones than to toilets…On the one hand, India has some 565 million mobile phone connections, covering roughly half the country’s 1.2 billion people…But only 366 million people, a third of its population, have the use of a proper toilet, according to a recent study by the United Nations. The rest defecate in the open, leading to the stereotype that India is a dirty, smelly country.

The inference is Indians have distorted priorities. It suggests that despite living in a poor country where choices are necessarily limited, they opt for a luxury good over safeguarding individual and public health. This strikes me as a false equivalence; use of toilets and use of mobile phones have different and largely independent drivers.

There are cultural and social reasons why open defecation persists, but “in most cases it is due to the fact that the alternatives (i.e. toilets) are not available or not clean, safe, and attractive”. Many “proper” toilets are necessarily provided communally, but they can be dangerous for women, they’re often at a distance, and they’re frequently smelly and dirty (the logic of open defecation is to avoid concentrating waste).

Mobile phones, in contrast, are readily available and do something miraculous: they enhance productivity and increase incomes. They make industries like tourism vastly more efficient and broaden the opportunities to generate work. Then there’s the productivity improvement in social life. In a country where transport is expensive relative to incomes and many urban residents are first or second generation rural in-migrants, a mobile phone is a way of preserving and reinforcing social networks.

For us, mobile phones were an improvement on landlines. For most citizens of India though, the mobile phone came first. It’s hard for us to comprehend what a wondrous change this must’ve been.

Investigating why the infrastructure for mobile phones in India is so much better than that for human waste removal would be a very useful exercise, but simply comparing the take-up of mobile phones with the number of toilets demeans the population and adds little real value to the task of improving sanitation.