TV over toilets

Televisions don’t need sewers

Preeti Aroon, over at FP Passport, asks why the slum-dwellers of Dharavi prefer TVs to toilets.

I’ve visited Mumbai many times myself, and I’ve always wondered about the TV antennas poking through thatched-roofed shacks. How can “these people” buy TVs when their kids are malnourished and wading through sewage-infested water?

I suppose it’s a matter of priorities. If you are accustomed to eating light meals and not having a toilet, you just might prefer a TV over heartier food and latrines. TV provides an escape from misery.[FP Passport]

If at all it’s a matter of priorities, Preeti needs to ask why they are so. “Never had a toilet, so don’t need one now” is not good enough an explanation.

Toilets are not very useful—especially in urban settings—unless there is a good system of sanitation. You can build a toilet, but you cant just buy sanitation. Similarly, running water is not something you can buy from a shop even if you had money (as many people in Dharavi do, that’s why they can afford to buy TV sets). So the residents of Dharavi are not seeking any more escape than their well-heeled counterparts in parts of the city that do have good toilets and running water. No, the residents of Dharavi chose to buy TV sets because the government has failed to provide them with sanitation and water supply.

When states fail to provide public goods, people try to provide them privately. That’s why you have captive power plants, Aquaguards (as Atanu Dey reminded me recently) and private security guards. That’s inefficient but oftentimes the only option. But sometimes—like in the case of sanitation and running water supply—you don’t have this option. So you just live with the fact that you can’t. And watch TV—where a shrill reporter is reporting the latest outrage (how could the authorities at Tirupati have allowed the Bachchan family as many as 20 minutes in the temple!)—because you can.

10 thoughts on “TV over toilets”

  1. That’s a great point, Nitin — but there has to be something else there too.

    Let me give an example. My parents moved to a small town in Vidarbha when I was sixteen — they still live there — and I spent two years there. Now the good thing about Yavatmal was that most people there lived in, what one would call, houses, as opposed to box-like apartments. Therefore drainage — built by the state — was not a problem; septic tanks were supposed to fulfill the function.

    And yet, there were a couple of houses — I will admit that the families were poorer — where there were no toilets and the everyone performed their, err, ablutions, outside, in the woods (we lived near the outskirts of town — which could be another factor). Ok — let me correct myself: the houses had bathrooms but no toilets. That always seemed strange to me — why no toilets? Would adding a septic tank increase the cost of building a house that much? I have no idea — and of course, I never asked. And yes, they had TV.

  2. “When state fails to provide public goods,people try to provide them privately”
    When state fails to provide employment,people move to metro cities to escape from the misery. And you have Asia’s largest slum (Link)

  3. “I suppose it is a matter of priorities.If you are accustomed to eating light meals and not having toilet,you just might prefer a TV over a toilet”
    It is a matter of priorities alright.People,especially poor people,need incentives to build toilets.In developed countries,where state can provide water and people can afford to build toilets,they need incentives to build water efficient toilets (Link)

  4. “Would adding a septic tank increase the cost of building a house that much?”

    Shreeharsh, I think so (it also needs land that someone living in a hut may not have). Also there is no one marketing it and providing low interest loans to build one.

    I guess we need captive septic system that doesn’t cost as much. I am sure it’ll help if it comes attached with a TV and a cable. 🙂

  5. Con Man,

    You seem to be close to the point without being there: the state need not provide employment, but needs to create the conditions for gainful employment to prevent the migration to cities.

    As for people needing incentives to build toilets. I guess nature has already done that. Incentives for water-efficient toilets, though, requires human intervention.

  6. Shreeharsh,

    Septic tanks are again an example of people providing privately what could be more efficient if provided publicly (through a sanitation system).

    In rural or semi-urban areas, where the population density is lower, it is possible that septic tanks are more efficient. That still does not mean that septic tanks will be preferred to television sets by everyone (say, by those with lower incomes, and/or by those living at the outskirts). ‘The woods’ are a substitute for toilets, but there’s no substitute for television (you get tired of playing antakshari).

    But my point is about urban areas. There is little doubt here that public provision of sanitation and water is efficient. It’s far more difficult for privateers to run sewage and water pipe systems, than it is for them to say supply electricity and run TV cables (legally or illegally). That’s why you are more likely to have power and TV in urban slums, but not sewage and water pipes.

  7. Nitin,

    On top of that, slums in Mumbai are legal. (it was done at the great Madame’s behest, when Deshmukh wanted to demolish illegal settlements, dont ask further).

    If they are legal,
    – The “structures” there should follow the regulations. So demolish them and ask the dwellers to rebuild the structures.

    Jai Bharat..

  8. I dont know if you know a TV was used as a efficient tool in the government birth control program probaby better than most other ones they tried, you never know what people do when they are bored……!!!!!!!!

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