Mobiles preferred over toilets in rural India

Updated: Apr 07, 2012, 16:15 PM IST

Rashi Aditi Ghosh/ZRG

Rural India makes its choices clear: it is ever so keen to buy more and more mobile phones but prefers to stay away from investing in toilets. Is it a matter of choice or affordability?

Latest Census data (Housing and House Listing Report, Census 2011) released last month revealed that half of rural India now uses a mobile phone but just about one third of it has access to a proper toilet. This raises a huge challenge for planners ever in search of the perfect socio-economic development model.

The Census data has another major challenge for policy makers as rural India has been found to be investing in television sets in a proportion higher than their spend on owning sanitation devices. As against a 30.7 per cent penetration of toilets in rural India, the TV set population is currently pegged at about 34 per cent of the rural population.

But is having proper sanitation a mindset issue? Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International said, “People in rural India still follow the ancient belief of no household toilets and this is one of the major reasons behind non availability of toilets amongst rural populace.”

A Nokia spokesperson said rural India is a strong market for handset makers and often a driving force for telecom operators.

The ‘Housing and House Listing Report’ by Census department throws more light on the debate. It revealed that the numbers of self-owned households in rural areas were higher in comparison to urban areas, but the availability of bathrooms was lesser in rural areas in comparison to urban India.

While 97.7 per cent of rural populace owned a house in comparison to 69.2 per cent of urban populace, only 45.5 per cent of rural areas had access to bathrooms in comparison to 87 per cent of urban populace.

Aidan Cronin, specialist in water and environmental sanitation, UNICEF India, has an explanation for the gap between mobile phones and toilets in India. “Rural populace can easily access mobile phones but possessing a proper functioning toilet is not at all seen as a key requirement. This is due to lack of guidance and awareness there,” Cronin says.

He disclosed that he was not at all surprised by the rural sanitation trend. “The Census figures tie in well with the Joint Monitoring Program estimates of UNICEF/WHO that notifies half of India still defecates in the open.” Cronin’s key worry is that over 80 per cent of diarrhea cases in India were now linked to poor water quality, lack of proper sanitation and un-kept hygiene.

Indira Khurana, director, policy and partnership at Water Aid, an international NGO working in the areas of health and hygiene, argued, “Our case studies reveal that women are subjected to various crimes due to them defecating and bathing in the public. The men just gloss over this and prefer to buy television on a priority rather than construct a toilet.”

She attributed the decision to prefer a television set to investing in a toilet to the male dominated mentality plaguing rural India. “Women do not enjoy any decision-making power in rural India and hence are unable to bring home the importance of a toilet.”

The government, which pegged the rural sanitation deficit at about 28 per cent last year, wants to construct toilets for the Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. It also proposes to form a Village Water Sanitation Committee which will have women representatives as well.

(With inputs from Ankita Chakrabarty and Siddharath Tak)

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