Monday, 1 November 2010

India: Land of many cell phones, fewer toilets

The Mumbai slum of Rafiq Nagar has no clean water for its shacks made of ripped tarp and bamboo. No garbage pickup along the rocky, pocked earth that serves as a road. No power except from haphazard cables strung overhead illegally.

And not a single toilet or latrine for its 10,000 people.Yet nearly every destitute family in the slum has a cell phone. Some have three.

When U.S. President Barack Obama visits India Nov. 6, he will find a country of startlingly uneven development and perplexing disparities, where more people have cell phones than access to a toilet, according to the United Nations.

Businessman Mukesh Ambani, the world's fourth-richest person, is just finishing off a new $1 billion skyscraper-house in Mumbai with 27 floors and three helipads, touted as the most expensive home on earth. Yet farmers still live in shacks of mud and cow dung.

The cell phone frenzy bridges all worlds. Cell phones are sold amid the Calvin Klein and Clinique stores under the soaring atriums of India's new malls, and in the crowded markets of its working-class neighborhoods. Bare shops in the slums sell pre-paid cards for as little as 20 cents next to packets of chewing tobacco, while street hawkers peddle car chargers at traffic lights.

The spartan Beecham's in New Delhi's Connaught Place, one of the country's seemingly ubiquitous mobile phone dealers, is overrun with lunchtime customers of all classes looking for everything from a 35,000 rupee ($790) Blackberry Torch to a basic 1,150 rupee ($26) Nokia.

Most of the slumdwellers are ragpickers who sort through heaps of trash for scraps of plastic, glass, metal, even bones, anything they can sell to recyclers for cash. A pungent brew of ripe garbage and sewage blows through the trash-strewn streets, as choking smoke from wood fires rolls out the doorways of windowless huts. Children, half clothed in rags, play hopscotch next to a mysterious gray liquid that has gathered in stagnant puddles weeks after the last rainfall.

Just beside the shacks, men and women defecate in separate areas behind rolling hills of green foliage that have sprung up over the garbage. Children run through those hills, flying kites.

Khatija Sheikh, 20, splurges to use a pay toilet in another neighborhood 10 minutes away, but is never sure what condition it will be in.

"Sometimes it's clean, sometimes it's dirty. It's totally dependent on the owner's mood," says Sheikh, whose two young children use the street. Her home is less than five feet from an elevated outhouse built by a neighbor that drops sewage next to her walls.

Since there are no water pipes or wells here, residents are forced to rely on the water mafia for water for cooking, washing clothes, bathing and drinking. The neighborhood is rife with skin infections, tuberculosis and other ailments.

A large blue barrel outside a home is filled with murky brown water, tiny white worms and an aluminum drinking cup. To fill up two jerry cans costs between 40 ($.90) and 50 ($1.10) rupees a day, about one-third of the average family's earnings here.

"If the government would give us water, we would pay that money to the government," said Suresh Pache, 41, a motorized rickshaw driver.

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