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.



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