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Despite cellphone boom in India, toilet access still lags

A BlackBerry is used to take a photo of the Taj Mahal Thursday, October 14, 2010 in Agra, India.


More people in India have cellphones than have toilets.

Sanitation campaigners have been muttering about this for a couple of years now, but the alarming statistic has been confirmed by the information gathered in the latest national census.

The "houselisting census" asked 246.6 million households a wide range of questions from what their walls were made of to whether they had a radio. Results are now out, and the survey found that 63.2 per cent of households said they had a telephone connection – that's up from 9.1 per cent a decade ago, and the increase is due almost entirely to the rise in cellphone ownership.

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However only 53.1 per cent of Indian households have access to a toilet – either one in their own home or in a shared toilet block. Less than one in three rural Indians has access to a toilet.

UNICEF says that 640 million Indians are still "open defecators" – people who relieve themselves in fields or next to railway tracks – a figure that remains high despite hikes in government spending on sanitation projects. Local governments have tangled those projects in corruption and bureaucracy, and even in places where toilet blocks are built, people have been slow to adopt use of the new facilities.

Nationally, just 10 per cent of Indians have access to a flush toilet that connects via drain to a sewage system.

"Open defecation continues to be a big concern for the country as almost half of the population do it," Census Commissioner C. Chandramouli said when he released the new data. "Cultural and traditional reasons and a lack of education are the prime reasons for this unhygienic practice. We have to do a lot in these fronts."

The phones-versus-toilets is one of the many contradictions exposed by the new census.

There have been substantial increases over the past 10 years in the number of households with a concrete roof (29, up from 19.8 per cent); those that have a tap as a source of drinking water (43.5, up from 36.7 per cent) and those that have electricity as a source of lighting (67.3 up from 55.9 per cent.) There has been a huge hike in the number of households using banking services – 58.7 per cent up from 35.5 per cent.

And yet: 65 per cent of Indian households still use firewood, crop residue or cow dung as their primary source of energy. One in five households sends a person more than half a kilometre to collect drinking water.

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Some 833 million of India's 1.2 billion people live in rural areas, although the census confirmed that the trend to urbanization continues, and family size continues to drop. Today 70 per cent of all Indians live in nuclear families, a dramatic shift away from the "joint family" lifestyle that continues to be idealized here.

A decade ago, half of all Indians did not own any of what the census calls "modes of communication" – televisions, transistor radios, telephones or computers.

Today half have televisions, 20 per cent have radios.

But for a country forging a reputation as an information technology powerhouse, there was another startling fact in the census data: 20 per cent of urban and just five per cent of rural households own a computer. Of the nine per cent of households total that own computers, only 3.1 per cent have an internet connection.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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