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.



Make Toilets not War!

51% of people in India don’t have access to a toilet, according to a report by the Working Group on Human Rights (a project of Indian human rights organizations and the UN). That’s not, “they don’t have a toilet in their house.” That’s, they don’t have a toilet. At. All. Just yesterday, walking home along a four-lane arterial in central Bangalore, a girl of about 8 or 9 stopped in front of me, flipped up her skirt, and started peeing on the sidewalk. Like her, hundreds of millions of people like her have literally no place else to go.

I’m not sure if something like this counts as having access to a toilet or not:

One man who gives a crap about this depressing situation is India’s Rural Development minister, who in a moment of PR brilliance this week used the recent test launch of another ballistic missile to publicize a partnership with India’s Defense Research and Development Organization to bring waterless toilets to rural India. Apparently the Defense Dept, which pioneered the technology so the boys who drop the bombs would have a place to drop the bomb, is ready to extend its deployment across India’s southern hinterlands. If it sounds odd that India’s Finest are taking on such a task, the US Defense Department is itself at the forefront of innovations in renewable technologies: energy independence matters nowhere more than out in the field.

The waterless toilet holds such promise for rural India because for such a basic need, toilets are a complex contraption. In a typical city, your humble porcelain bowl is merely the tail end of hundreds of miles of pipes and tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. It reminds me of the recent a flurry of news when it was reported that more people in India have cell phones than toilets. For all its symbolic potency, this stat doesn’t strike me as that odd. I mean, once you’ve built the towers, adding more cell phones are easy — a little disposable income and you’re good to go. With toilets, every bowl comes with an infrastructure bill. The composting toilets aren’t as cheap as a cell phone, but waterless technology nevertheless offers a promising work-around to one of the most significant challenges standing in the way of private privies for all.