India, Obama, Toilets and my Cat

Published on November 12th, 2010

President Obama’s trip to India has elevated coverage of the planet’s second most populous country. One Associated Press article that captured the extremes in the country particularly well was headed, "India: Land of many cell phones, fewer toilets."

Nearly every impoverished slum family has a cell phone – and sometimes as many as three – in Rafiq Nagar, a Bombay slum, but there’s no clean water and not one toilet or latrine for the 10,000 people living there. This is in juxtaposition to a country that has the fourth-richest person who lives in a $1 billion home and millions of others who have reaped the rewards of globalization.

In the entire country, there are 670 million cell phone connections – with that number growing rapidly each month. While everyone is getting connected, "only 366 million Indians have access to a private toilet or latrine, leaving 665 million to defecate in the open," the story continues as it describes "startlingly uneven development and perplexing disparities." One reformer estimates that India needs 120 million latrines.

In a modern world, the picture the article paints of raw sewage, stench and dreadful health problems for millions due to lack of basic facilities is heartbreaking. I couldn’t help thinking that the cat we just took in has a better life; she has a dedicated restroom and nearly immediate "maid service."

While undoubtedly the complexities of culture, politics, poverty and wealth are numerous in India, it would be difficult to believe that extreme overpopulation doesn’t exacerbate all of the country’s challenges.

India has approximately 1.2 billion people and is expected to overtake the world’s most populous country, China (1.3 billion), in population. The country did sign a statement in 1989 with many other countries supporting stabilizing human population, but it really hasn’t addressed its overpopulation problem sufficiently. A few examples include a "radios for vasectomies" program in the 1970s that was later criticized, and The New York Times recently reported on a government program that incentivizes couples with cash to wait to have children. But, overall programs are inconsistent, or there aren’t enough.

Families in India have an average of 2.6 children – a significant reduction from 50 years ago. Still, India is above the stabilizing 2.1 rate and likely will not meet its Millennium Development Goals to reduce birth rates by 2015, since only about half of the country’s states have achieved the target of two children per mother.

Some of the poorest states with the highest populations average almost four children per family and have some of the lowest female literacy rates, according to The New York Times article. As is the accepted mantra today by those working in this field, educating girls is the best way to reduce high birth rates.

To the extent that an unintended consequence of the Obama trip to India is a light shining on the negative impacts of overpopulation, that’s a good thing. From 1950 to 2000, India grew from 350 million people to more than 1 billion, up 182 percent. The U.S., primarily due to unchecked illegal immigration and births to immigrants, has chosen an unsustainable path of overpopulation too. Current U.S. population is more than 310 million. Do we want to follow India’s path and see 1 billion in the United States in 50 years or so?

More cell phones than toilets … indeed a startling and perplexing piece of data. I’m just glad America got indoor plumbing before cell phones.

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