The Buzz

“565 million – number of mobile phones in India, which outnumbers the amount of people with access to a toilet (366 million).”  The Weekend Australian Magazine, July 24-25 2010

This statistic has intrigued me. What does it tells us about life’s priorities, the power of communication and consumerism?

Either the Indians seriously love a chat or there is a problem with priorities on the sub-continent. After spending 7 years living in Asia – Thailand, Bangladesh and Indonesia – I thought I knew what was important in the developing world. Obviously though making a phone call is higher on the list of to-dos than having access to a basic service.

Greater and wiser minds than mine might be able to explain why it is in countries where people who live in abject poverty with no access to basic services like healthcare, toilets and education can afford to own and operate a mobile phone. Or is it that those phones are all owned by the wealthy and it’s just a stark reminder of the disparity between the haves and have-nots?

I do know the answer to that last question: desperately poor people do own and operate mobile phones. Travelling through Indonesia and Bangladesh I saw mobile phones and phone cards for sale in most villages. This in countries where, no exaggeration, hundreds of millions of people live on less than US $1 per day. In countries where I was told time after time that to get people to wash their hands after going to the toilet was difficult because a cake of soap cost 8 cents and with a choice between necessities like food and heating, soap just didn’t make the cut. It seems phones do however.

Although this stat doesn’t surprise me, it does highlight the power of consumerism, the digital age and the need to communicate. I suspect mobile phone ownership and poor people has more to do with business and micro finance and less to do with peer pressure and accessorising. But I could be wrong.

Mobile phones are used for a multitude of reasons and again I suspect that the poor of India use them more for information and business contacts and less for pure socialising. I know many aid agencies and Government departments in developing countries are using the mobile phone as an education and information channel. They do deals with the phone providers and send out messages to users such as reminding them about national immunisation days, election details and no doubt, companies use them for advertising and direct marketing.

The need to communicate is essential for most people and the poor of India are no different. Making money is a priority and the mobile phone no doubt is a great tool. In Bangladesh, I know many women get micro finance loans to buy the phone so they can conduct their business and this is an important aspect of poverty alleviation.

But it is concerning that in a country with 565 million mobile phones – hundreds of millions of people still do not have access to a toilet. The reality is that people are forced to defecate in the open, they do not have access to a clean water source to wash their hands and this in turn affects the health of the population as well as the environment. Millions of children still die every year from diseases that could be prevented with simple access to a sanitary latrine and a safe water supply.

So while I can understand the need for communication (I work in the communication business after all) and the need to earn money, I still find it difficult to accept that millions of people don’t have access to a toilet. It may be unrealistic but if going to the loo was a money-making proposition then I suspect every family in India would have at least two brand spanking new toilets courtesy of Business Incorporated.

Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.

Jim Morrison


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