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India's Census: Lots Of Cellphones, Too Few Toilets

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India's Census: Lots Of Cellphones, Too Few Toilets

Asia

India's Census: Lots Of Cellphones, Too Few Toilets

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

India's economy has undergone a transformation over the last few years. The number of billionaires has grown, and millions of hardworking Indians have pulled themselves up into an expanding middle class. But there are doubts about whether this rapid growth has improved the lives of the very poor, and if they are getting the kind of public services they deserve.

The Indian government recently published census figures that revealed a few answers, as Elliot Hannon reports from New Delhi.

ELLIOT HANNON, BYLINE: There's no doubt the Indian economy is on the rise. But there is concern that not enough Indians are rising with it. When India released it's latest tally of what Indian households own, the numbers showed they've been able to buy more things than ever; more mobile phones, more TVs, more of almost everything that one could buy, even in the poorest areas.

And that's a promising sign, says Bhuvana Anand from the Centre for Civil Society, an independent NGO in New Delhi.

DR. BHUVANA ANAND: Does growth really trickle down? I think this is the start of that. And access to basic products, or access to aspirational products is usually the first signal of that kind of thing happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS AND A BARKING DOG)

HANNON: In a slum in the heart of New Delhi, there are signs of this improvement in personal wealth amid the public squalor. House painter Pramod Kumar has lived here for almost all of his 26 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MUSIC)

HANNON: Kumar stoops to enter the small doorway into his family home. Inside his tidy room, a TV is tuned to an afternoon soap opera, while in the corner lies a tightly made bed. A DVD player sits next to the TV. And a refrigerator keeps bottles of drinking water cold. It looks almost like a dorm room but Kumar doesn't want to stay here.

PRAMOD KUMAR: (Through Translator) There is a problem here with sanitation and water. My father doesn't let anyone in the family come here anymore. My older brother has three kids, but my father doesn't let them come over because he doesn't want them to grow up in this kind of environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS AND MACHINERY)

HANNON: Along each alleyway, electrical wires dangle. Women hand wash clothes on their doorsteps next to murky open sewers. According to the census, half of the country still doesn't have access to any toilet at all. But, like Kumar, more than half do have a mobile phone.

The fact that a mobile phone is easier to get than a toilet is a telling one, says Partha Mukhopadhyay an economist at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi. To him it shows that while individuals in India are striving, the Indian government hasn't been able to keep up.

DR. PARTHA MUKHOPADHYAY: In order to provide public goods like sanitation, like water, what you need is for the state to be organized, to be able to transform this increase in incomes into an increase in state revenues.

HANNON: Numbers of those with access to sewage, sanitation and water have increased in India. But rural areas still lag far behind. And across the country, Indians often are left to fend for themselves when it comes to public services, says Bhuvana Anand.

ANAND: Certain people are very optimistic about their ability to rise and shine, but not about their government's ability to support them.

HANNON: There are growing concerns that the government is not only not helping, it's getting in the way. Recently the economy has stumbled and a steady stream of corruption scandals has heightened the suspicion that India's leaders may be ill-equipped to catch up to the rest of the country.

For NPR News, I'm Elliot Hannon in New Delhi.

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