Why can’t we sell toilets like mobiles?

Open defecation leads to microbial contamination of land and water sources resulting in cumulative harm to health of people, hence hinders economic activity. The cost of inadequate sanitation in India was estimated at Rs. 2.44 trillion, based on the figures for 2006, which is equivalent to 6.4% of GDP*. The Government of India launched Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) and initiated Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP) for villages achieving Open Defecation Free (OFD) status.

 Yet, “The real dirty picture”, “Mobiles ring more than toilets”, “Half of India’s homes have mobile phones, but not toilets.” “More phones than toilets”, “Mobiles out number toilets in India”, “No toilets in 50% homes in city”, “The census truth: More Indians have access to phones than toilets” screamed headlines in various media after the 2011 census results were made public early part of this year. According to the findings of census 2011 about 31% in rural areas have a toilet in home while 47.9% household owned a mobile.

The practice of open defecation is still rampant in rural as well as urban areas in India. It is quite disheartening to see mass open defecation in HSR Layout, who some claim the place to live in Bangalore. The empty tract of land is quite close to BDA complex and Koramangala club.

‘Why can’t we sell toilets like mobiles we need to ask ourselves. In case of mobiles the seller (manufacturers like Nokia, Samsung and service providers like airtel, idea, vodafone) are eager to push their products. Even the policy makers and administrators are interested because of the huge sums involved in spectrum fee and other benefits associated with. The common man is obviously keen to buy a mobile and the talk time. But in case of toilets who is the sellers in India? Is the seller of toilets is motivated like Nokia and Samsung to make the product accessible, affordable and attractive. Why the common man in India does not show the same enthusiasm to go for a toilet, in spite of the subsidy offered by the government. Is the need for communicating with others is more overpowering than need for a toilet?

 We need to adopt a social marketing approach, to encourage use toilets by the people. The first step is to understand why people continue to defecate in open. The most obvious reason is inadequate access to individual toilets. The problem is more acute in urban areas, where migrants, construction labour etc who live in temporary sheds. The responsibility of providing this population with toilets rests with the Municipal Corporation and the contractors for whom these people work. But both appear to be unresponsive, intentionally or otherwise.

One of the options could be community and public toilets where open defecation is common and massive. But we need a service provider like Idea, Docomo, Airtel to make these toilets functional, affordable and attractive. Why don’t we have more service providers like Sulabh Sauchalay. Acquiring land in a place like HSR Layout can pose a problem. Mobile toilet vans similar to mobile ATMs, mobile clinics, mobile vegetable markets, could provide a viable option. This will obliterate need for land for constructing toilets, amenable to better maintenance and facilitate treatment and safe disposal of human excreta.

Behaviour change communication can play a vital role, in making the people (who pay nothing for open defecation) to pay modest amount for using a toilet. It should focus on the key benefit to the user. In fact they can use their mobile to summon a mobile toilet, similar to a call taxi or ambulance. The essence is to maintain these toilets hygienic and safe, especially for women. Once the people see a good reason for paying to use a toilet, it can offer a good model for entrepreneurship and improving livelihood offering huge market for infrastructure (Rs 4.4 trillion) and Rs. 2.5 trillion in operation and maintenance services1. Eradicating open defecation directly contributes to  achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDG) related to environment, which also has significant influence on other health related MDGs, such as preventing diarrhoea in children and decrease in child mortality. It can also contribute to another MDG namely ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’.


* Water Sanitation Programme. World Bank. The Economic Impact of Inadequate Sanitation in India.

Written by Dr PH Rao, CEO, STEM


  1. Concept is excellent. Implementation may take time……….

  2. Amit says:

    Very useful Article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *