Can we make basic services more like cell phones?

It was noted with great ballyhoo earlier this summer that more Indians have cell phones than toilets.

To which I had the stunning response: So what? Or to be more precise: cell phones are easy. Once you build the infrastructure, adding new customers is a matter of adding customers indefinitely, or at least, as long as the bandwidth holds up. Toilets, however, are hard. The value of your fifty-buck porcelain bowl isn’t in the porcelain. Take away the multimillion-dollar piece of public infrastructure it’s attached to, and you’ve got. . . a chair.

Or, a chair with a nice view.

Along these lines, I’ve seen a number of articles recently that suggest ideas for cutting the infrastructure line on the budget and focusing on “distributed” solutions to the continued failure of developing world governments to provide basic services. “Water ATMs” in Mumbai, where women and kids don’t need to queue up at the public tap for the brief window of during the day — generally sometime between godawful and unspeakable — when the water runs. Solar power to run irrigation pumps in rural India, skipping the creaky grid entirely. And yes, bio-digester toilets.

Are there downsides to giving up on big public infrastructure projects? On the one hand, there’s a permanence to major infrastructure that is at least symbolic of a social compact. On the other hand, when that infrastructure is slow in coming and erratic in its functioning, it’s hard not to think broadly about alternatives.

 

It’s not every day you see people’s homes being demolished. Thank God.

Over the course of less than a week, I watched hundreds of people’s homes bulldozed in Hampi, a world heritage site set in a haunting boulder-strewn landscape in India. It’s stunning: you can tell why folks considered this place sacred from at least the 9th century on. The centerpiece is the massive Virupaksha temple, one of Shiva’s most holy temples.  Its surroundings got a bit, shall we say, profane over the years: a jumble of backpacker guesthouses and tchotchke shops that provided a nice living for a few hundred families in the shadow of Virupaksha.

No more.  The initial demolition took place last fall (the Guardian did a heartbreaking piece about the evictions in May). After a standing as a ghost town for nearly a year; the bulldozers rolled in this week for the coup de grace.

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Here’s how you destroy hundreds of people’s livelihoods in a single week. First, you knock out all the windows, doors, and roofs, to force people out. This leaves the remaining residents picking their way through rubble piles in a creepy, but brightly painted, ghost neighborhood. Then, you bring in the bulldozers. As residents scavenge rebar and children carry home unbroken bricks, barefoot laborers break the rubble into chunks that can be thrown into the back of a truck. Load by load, lives and livelihoods disappear down the road.

Now, life goes on for the people left behind: repainting their businesses, games of cricket in the streets, and shuttling the streams of tourists to the guesthouses across the river, where you can’t hear the bulldozers, and you can’t smell the dus