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In Old Dehli, India, a resident checks his mobile phone (Lana Slezic/Lana Slezic)
In Old Dehli, India, a resident checks his mobile phone (Lana Slezic/Lana Slezic)

ROB Magazine

Indian census: more cellphones than toilets Add to ...

More Indian households have cellphones than have toilets: That was the buzz when data from the 2011 census was released in March. The comparison says as much about the government's failure to deliver basic public services as it does about the success of Indian telcos in penetrating every corner of the country. But the survey of 246.7 million households also tells a larger story about how the country has changed in a decade. <br/><br/> More than two-thirds of Indians still live in areas classified as rural, but there has been rapid growth in what the census describes as "small cities" (populations of 500,000 people or less) across the country. On the edges of those cities are new clusters of villages where nearly three-quarters of the inhabitants have transitioned out of farming.<br/><br/>The census also found that people have been spending money to improve their homes. They replaced thatch roofs with concrete (on 29% of houses, up from 20% in 2001). They put in taps (44% from 37%) and electrical connections (67% from 56%). And they invested in durable goods: The census noted that 20% of urban households, and 5% in rural areas, own a computer-not a huge percentage, but the number was so low a decade ago that it wasn't even counted. Meanwhile, two-thirds of households still cook on firewood, crop residue or dung, and more than half get their water from outside the home.<br/><br/>All of this is to say, Indians are increasingly turning to the private sector to provide public goods and services. "People are still spending despite the economic slowdown," says Partha Mukhopadhyay, who plumbs the census data for a Delhi think tank called the Centre for Policy Research. "This census is the story of a people who believe in the future-and they are doing whatever they can to secure it for themselves," says Mukhopadhyay. "The complementary effort from the government is still not visible in these numbers. But broader consumer demand and expectation is there." Government failure isn't always bad for business, says Mukhopadhyay. "If you sell generators or run private schools, it's a great thing for you."

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