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Originally published October 30, 2010 at 4:33 PM | Page modified October 30, 2010 at 4:38 PM

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In India, cellphones abound, toilets don't

When President Obama visits India on Nov. 6, he will find a country of startlingly uneven development and perplexing disparities, where more people have cellphones than access to a toilet.

The Associated Press

MUMBAI, India — The Mumbai slum of Rafiq Nagar has no clean water for its shacks made of ripped tarp and bamboo. No garbage pickup. No power except from haphazard cables strung overhead illegally.

And not a single toilet or latrine for its 10,000 people.

Yet nearly every destitute family in the slum has a cellphone. Some have three.

When President Obama visits India on Nov. 6, he will find a country of startlingly uneven development and perplexing disparities, where more people have cellphones than access to a toilet, according to the United Nations.

It is a country buoyed by a vibrant business world of call centers and software developers, but hamstrung by a bloated, corrupt government that has failed to deliver the barest of services.

Its estimated growth rate of 8.5 percent a year is among the highest in the world, but its roads are crumbling.

It offers cheap, world-class medical care to Western tourists at private hospitals, yet has some of the worst child-mortality and maternal death rates outside sub-Saharan Africa. While tens of millions have benefited from India's rise, many more remain mired in some of the worst poverty in the world.

The cellphone frenzy bridges all worlds. Cellphones are sold amid the Calvin Klein and Clinique stores in India's new malls and in the crowded markets of its working-class neighborhoods. Bare shops in the slums sell prepaid cards for as little as 20 cents.

The Beecham's cellphone dealer in New Delhi's Connaught Place is overrun with lunchtime customers of all classes looking for everything from a $790 Blackberry Torch to a basic $26 Nokia.

Store manager Sanjeev Malhotra adds to a decades-old — and still unfulfilled — Hindi campaign slogan promising food, clothing and shelter. "Roti, kapda, makaan" and "mobile," he riffs, laughing. "Basic needs."

There were more than 670 million cellphone connections in India by the end of August, a number that has been growing by nearly 20 million a month, according to government figures. Yet U.N. figures show that only 366 million Indians have access to a private toilet or latrine.

"At least tap water and sewage disposal; how can we talk about any development without these two fundamental things?" says Anita Patil-Deshmukhl, executive director of PUKAR, an organization that conducts research and outreach in the slums of Mumbai.

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India's leaders say they are sympathetic to the problem.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist credited with unleashing India's private sector by loosening government regulation, talks about growth that benefits the masses of poor people and a burgeoning middle class of about 300 million.

But up to 800 million Indians still live on less than $2 a day.

"Everybody understands the threat. Everybody recognizes that there is a gap, that this could be the thing that trips up this country," says Anand Mahindra, vice chairman and managing director of the Mahindra & Mahindra manufacturing company.

Private companies have tried to fill that gap, and Tata sells a $16 water purifier for the poor. Mafias provide water and electricity to slumdwellers at a cost far higher than what wealthy Indians pay for basic services.

"For every little thing, we have to pay," says Nusrat Khan, 35, a maid and single parent who is raising her four children on less than $67 a month and blames the government for her lack of access to water and a toilet.

In the slums of Mumbai, home to more than half the city's population of 14 million, the yearning for toilets is so great that residents have built makeshift outhouses.

In Annabhau Sathe Nagar, a raised latrine of corrugated tin empties into a river of sewage that children splash in and adults wade across. The slum in east Mumbai has about 50,000 residents and a single toilet building, with 10 pay toilets for men and eight for women, two of which are broken.

With the wait for those toilets up to an hour even at 5 a.m., and the 4-cent fee too expensive for many, most people either use a field or use toilets at work, says Santosh Thorat, 32, a community organizer.

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