April 25, 2007Economy

TV over toilets

Televisions don’t need sewers

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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.

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