The Indian Economy Blog

April 26, 2007

TV over Toilets

Filed under: Growth,Health,Human Capital,Infrastructure,Media & Economics — Nitin @ 7:02 am

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 can’t 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.


  1. People in general, always buy what they want, not what they need. This is how astute marketers sell lifestyle products like fancy cars, jewelry, diamonds and other “non-needed” goods to the middle and upper classes.In case of the lower classes, a TV is a “lifestyle” product.

    Comment by Mandar — April 26, 2007 @ 8:03 am

  2. Great observation. It is remarkable how the concept of TINA (There Is No Alternative) is so utterly hard to get for people (“why dont the farmers grow strawberry instead of rainfed corn?”)who grow up with plenty of alternatives and options. Preetiji shows how hard.

    Comment by etlamatey — April 26, 2007 @ 8:23 am

  3. This is similar to the concept of the front end and back end of things, which I remember reading on Deeshaa. With money, people can buy the front end, i.e. a toilet facade, but unless the back end of sanitation systems is in place, its obviously just a sham. However, I am seeing cases these days, with housing prices going through the roof, middle class consumers willing to take a chance and buy in places where the front end is ready (house) without the back end (drainage, garbage disposal etc) being in place.

    Comment by apu — April 26, 2007 @ 9:31 am

  4. However, I am seeing cases these days, with housing prices going through the roof, middle class consumers willing to take a chance and buy in places where the front end is ready (house) without the back end (drainage, garbage disposal etc) being in place.

    In a way that’s good news. Everyone needs infrastructure, but the lower income groups lack the influence, and the upper income groups can afford private provision…the middle class is where need meets influence. The optimistic way of looking at it is that as more people enter the middle class, they will demand better public services.

    Comment by Nitin — April 26, 2007 @ 10:49 am

  5. Mandar,

    TVs are not marketed as lifestyle items to slum dwellers because they are lifestyle items as such; rather, because marketing them so is a good way to sell them. People will buy the goods they need without the need for additional marketing (eg mobile phones). This does not mean that TV or phone companies won’t market—but the marketing is aimed at differentiation.

    In this case, a part of a family’s income which they would have spent on goods they need (toilets), cannot be so spent because those goods are not ‘complete’. So some income gets freed up. There are many competitors who contend for a share of the income that becomes disposable in this way—TV sellers among them. It is likely that even this disposable income will be allocated along a hierarchy of “need-wants”.

    Comment by Nitin — April 26, 2007 @ 1:02 pm

  6. Here is a good article about how the poor spend their money, with a couple of economic studies thrown in for good measure:

    “Perhaps surprisingly, then, even the poorest find the resources to let their hair down. Duflo and Banerjee, looking at economic surveys of the very poor from 13 different countries, conclude that about one-third of household income is spent on stuff other than food. The alternatives to simply trying to consume more calories include shelter, of course, but even the poorest find some money to spend on things such as tobacco, alcohol, weddings, funerals, or religious festivals. Radios and televisions are also popular.”

    Put another way, there is an access problem when it comes to sanitation services, there isn’t one when it comes to buying most non-perishable items, most places you go. I thought good food was hard to find when I went on a Saurashtra trip, but there was no lack of cellphone service.

    Comment by Devang — April 26, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  7. It is a complicated issue. Clearly, money is not the only issue. I remember the case of my grand parents in the village where they used to go to the fields every morning and didnt find it a problem even when they had the money and the space in their back yard to construct a toilet. It was only when their city bred grand children refused to visit them, they decided to construct a toilet. My grandmother didnt mind getting up before dawn and walking in the darkness since she was used to this. Just two weeks after the toilet was constructed she wondered how she managed to live without it for so long.

    Comment by Revathi — April 29, 2007 @ 12:56 pm

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