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April 23, 2021

India has more cell phones than toilets: study

We knew it when “text messanger's thumb” happened, and we damn sure knew it when there was “cell phone elbow,” an infliction so evidently serious CNN featured an entire story on the syndrome.

Yes, the world has gone nuts with mobile phones. We know this.

But our over-use of cell phones has always come with a sort of self-deprecating sentiment. A kind of “Oh, yeah, you can’t get enough of your CrackBerry, either” vibe, suggesting there’s at least a little humour behind our reliance on handheld devices.

Doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of chuckling with a story like this, though.

A new report from the United Nations University in Tokyo has revealed more people in India have access to a cell phone than they do a working toilet.

According to the numbers, there are 545 million cell phones in the nation, enough to serve about 45 per cent of India’s population. By contrast, only 366 million people (31 per cent of the country) can use regular plumbing, what the UN calls “improved sanitation.”

“It is a tragic irony to think that in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones, about half cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet,” noted Zafar Adeel, director of the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

These are pretty staggering numbers, and should also come as little surprise to anyone who caught that scene in Slumdog Millionaire  where the kid gets locked in a pay toilet and has to jump to freedom though the, um, basement.

But there's an economic plan in place to fix this problem.

The UN estimates it costs about $300 to build a toilet – labour, materials, everything – in India, but Adeel notes that’s cash the world can see realized as a long-term investment.

According to the director, each dollar spent on sanitation in India can return between $3 and $34, realized through reduced poverty, lower health costs and higher productivity in the country.

“Anyone who shirks the topic as repugnant, minimizes it as undignified, or considers unworthy those in need should let others take over the for the sake of 1.5 million children and countless others killed each year by contaminated water and unhealthy sanitation,” he said.

By Jason Buckland, MSN Money



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

James HaversJames Havers

James is the senior editor of MSN Money living in Toronto. He has worked for the Nikkei Shimbun (Tokyo),,, Canadian Business and other publications. Havers turned to journalism after teaching overseas.

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...