Recent census data in India revealed that more homes have telephones than toilets. The figures shed light on the contradictions in a country that is experiencing an economic boom while struggling with poverty.
For the past seven years, Malika Behan, a domestic help in Delhi, and her relatives have lined up religiously in front of a crowded public toilet next to their one-room structure to perform their morning ablutions. She is one of the lucky ones.
There are thousands of others who have no option but to head out to the open fields or alongside the railway tracks to relieve themselves. Even in the capital New Delhi, it is common to see people squatting by roads and openly defecating because there are simply no adequate public toilet facilities.
"The lack of sanitation itself poses health and environmental hazards. But we have no alternative. Sometimes they are difficult to access, particularly by women and children," says Malika.
"Open defecation continues to be a big concern," says Registrar General and Census Commissioner C Chandramouli. "There are several reasons for this unhygienic practice and we have to do a lot in these fronts to remove this stigma."
Reports have repeatedly placed India at the top of nations in which people defecate regularly in the open.
"Creating access to toilets and sanitation is vital," says Bindeshwari Pathak, the head of Sulabh International Social Service Organization in New Delhi. "We are helping state governments around the country to employ innovative technologies, which are appropriate and affordable."
'Government must do more'
"The facts and figures indicate there has been some improvement in conveniences to households in both the rural and urban pockets," Sanjay Srivastata of the Institute of Economic Growth told Deutsche Welle. "But that is not enough. The government must do much more especially for families who live under a dollar a day."
The latest housing data show that just 32 percent of Indian households use treated water for drinking and 17 percent still fetch drinking water from a source located more than 500 meters in rural areas or 100 meters in urban centers.
For cooking, 67 percent of households use firewood, crop residue or cow dung cakes. Only 29 percent of households use cooking gas, biogas or electricity as cooking fuel.
Paradoxically, India's 100 richest people own assets equivalent to one fourth of the Gross Domestic Product which is currently pegged at US $1.3 trillion.
Hundreds of millions of people still lack basics such as electricity, toilets and a convenient water source
"The whole point is whether India can bridge these impossible contradictions?" asks lawyer Mohit Sharma. "These inequalities seem to be rising even as the economy grows which is supposed to help development and create more jobs."
To promote inclusive growth, the government has launched the National Rural Employment Guarantee Program and drafted an ambitious Food Security Act that is due to be unveiled next month. The aim is to increase disposable income for the lower rungs of Indian society, especially in the country's rural hinterland.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Anne Thomas