Mumbai, India 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 President Barack Obama visits India on Saturday, 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.
It is a country buoyed by a vibrant business world of call centers and software developers, but hamstrung by a bloated, corrupt government that has failed to deliver the barest of services.
Its estimated growth rate of 8.5 percent a year is among the highest in the world, but its roads are crumbling.
It offers cheap, world-class medical care to Western tourists at private hospitals, yet has some of the worst child mortality and maternal death rates outside sub-Saharan Africa.
And while tens of millions have benefited from India’s rise, many more remain mired in some of the worst poverty in the world.
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 $790 Blackberry Torch to a basic $26 Nokia.
Store manager Sanjeev Malhotra adds to a decades-old — and still unfulfilled — Hindi campaign slogan promising food, clothing and shelter. “Roti, kapda, makaan” and “mobile,” he riffs, laughing. “Basic needs.”
There were more than 670 million cell phone connections in India by the end of August, a number that has been growing by close to 20 million a month, according to government figures.
Yet U.N. figures show that only 366 million Indians have access to a private toilet or latrine, leaving 665 million to defecate in the open.
“At least tap water and sewage disposal — how can we talk about any development without these two fundamental things? How can we talk about development without health and education?” says Anita Patil-Deshmukhl, executive director of PUKAR, an organization that conducts research and outreach in the slums of Mumbai.
India’s leaders say they are sympathetic to the problem.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist credited with unleashing India’s private sector by loosening government regulation, talks about growth that benefits the masses of poor people as well as a burgeoning middle class of about 300 million. He describes a roaring Maoist insurgency in the east — which feeds in large part on the poor’s discontent — as the country’s biggest internal security threat.
Sonia Gandhi, chief of the ruling Congress Party, has pushed laws guaranteeing a right to food and education, as well as a gargantuan rural jobs program for nearly 100 million people. But as many as 800 million Indians still live on less than $2 a day, even as Mumbai’s stock exchange sits near record highs.
Many fear the situation is unsustainable.
“Everybody understands the threat. Everybody recognizes that there is a gap, that this could be the thing that trips up this country,” says Anand Mahindra, vice chairman and managing director of the Mahindra & Mahindra manufacturing company.
Private companies have tried to fill that gap, and Tata sells a $16 water purifier for the poor. Mafias provide water and electricity to slumdwellers at a cost far higher than what wealthy Indians pay for basic services.
“For every little thing, we have to pay,” says Nusrat Khan, a 35-year-old maid and single parent who raises her four children on less than $67 a month and blames the government for her lack of access to water and a toilet.
The government is spending $350 million a year to build toilets in rural areas. Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, estimates the country needs about 120 million more latrines — likely the largest sanitation project in world history.
“Those in power, only they can change the situation,” says Pathak, who claims to have helped build a million low-cost latrines across India over the past 40 years. “India can achieve this — if it desires.”