13 Apr 2014

How we "live"

As often argued by capitalists, economic improvement of a society requires a section of it to lead the quest; that section who can channel accumulated capital, has risk appetite and / or possess requisite skills. Consequently, such section of society garners a more-than-proportionate share of resultant wealth creation in a capitalist society. What about the society at large...often asks the left. Indicators as avg GDP growth etc. are usually thrown as a reply. However, there is always a genuine case to be made that these metrics fail to explain if such wealth creation has been concentrated in only a small section of the society or has flown through to the masses at large. Not to suggest that income distribution be exactly equal (that would be the theoretical leftist argument, which in practice means no income improvement), rather that most sections of society should benefit to a respectable extent, of which some would be above average, others would be lower but not significantly and should score a healthy improvement.

Long story short, we would have to gauge the improvement in standard of living for various states by looking at several metrics at a disaggregated level, and not as an average. 

We chanced upon looking at a few astonishing numbers, which prompted us to write this article in the above context: numbers which struck us as unbelievably disappointing as well. Sample these: two-thirds of Indian population has no toilet within premises, and hence is forced to defecate in open fields every morning (privacy, hygiene anyone?). Every two out of five Indian households have no kitchen within premises - they cook in open in makeshift chulhas. Again, two-thirds of Indians use wood/cowdung/crop-residue for cooking (no LPG or kerosene), just imagine the levels of smoke to be endured. Astonishing, astonishing numbers. This, when it has been 65+ years of independence with stable governments for the most time, poverty-eradication being the battle-cry for every political party, and we Indians been fed stories of India Shining and Bharat Nirman first in 2004 and now in 2014. Begs the question, are we in Africa?

While economic prosperity takes many forms, safe, discreet and hygienic facilities as a toilet and a kitchen are perhaps two of the most basic needs, there is no denying that. It would be fair to hypothesise that any economic upliftment of poor should immediately reflect in terms of improvement in availability of such facilities. There are other measures of economic upliftment as well, sure - for example, we looked at access and availability of basic commodities such as water and electricity previously on this blog; we need to further look at cooking fuel to complete that piece. There would be literacy, healthcare, employment metrics to look at.

For now, we would be looking at the condition of the two aforementioned basic facilities that should be available in every household: the Toilet and the Kitchen. Given a large part of our population has neither, we will try examining if the performance has been different across various Indian states relative to each other - having better access to a kitchen / toilet denotes social and economic upliftment of the marginalized lower-middle / poorer sections. 

Before we proceed, it would be worthwhile to mention this: The attempt is to see how various states have improved / deteriorated over the last 10-15 years on these metrics, so as to conduct a relative benchmarking of states vis-a-vis each other, as well as with themselves over the timeline, and not to compare states as they stand today (UP, Bihar etc would otherwise be always the last in general). We would also look for reliable 3rd party data sources for any such research, and hence this analysis would use Census data almost exclusively. Finally, we believe everyone has a bias which colours his narrative and as such readers should be aware of that of the author and make their own inferences based on the analysis presented.

So let’s first start looking at the toilet facilities, perhaps the most important household amenity since it doesn't just addresses convenience and privacy needs, but also has a large angle of hygiene to it. No wonder prominent leaders from both UPA and NDA made the toilet-before-temple remark, albeit to much public outrage subsequently. The chart below compares India and top 12 states by type of toilet facilities used by their population, both in 2001 and 2011. (We use top 12 states for ease and relevance, these states cover 83% of Indian population.)

%Households by usage of toilet facilities (India & Top 12 states, 2001-11)

Note: All of us would know what a flush toilet is. One can read more about a pit toilet on wiki, it's essentially a dry toilet which often requires manual scavenging. Other toilets include even worse kind of dry toilets. Of course, a large number of households do not have an in-premises toilet at all, and mostly dependent on open space (fields).

Source: Census 2001 and 2011

The chart above goes a long way to demonstrate the general condition Indian population lives in. We, the town-dwellers, of course know India is a poor country, but surely the statistic of 53% of its population having to use open fields for excretion would surprise many. An apt moment to murmur (with tune, no less) “India Shining” and “Bharat Nirman”.

I digress. The objective here is also to compare states relative to each other. One way to look at the data is in terms of usage levels of flush toilet, the most hygiene & convenient form of toilet facility.
  • Andhra Pradesh improved such usage of flush toilet in its population by 25% points over the 10 year period, 2001-11. Some benefit of low base effect (18% in 2001) is applicable, it is still a very good performance relative to other states.
  • Further Gujarat, Maharashtra and UP all improved such access by 22% points. Gujarat delivered such performance over a much higher base of 31% in 2001 and is now only the 2nd state with 50%+ households using a flush toilet. Law of diminishing returns: it requires more efforts to deliver a 22% points improvement from a starting position of 31% (Gujarat) than 22% (Maharashtra).
  • Kerala deserves a special mention, 2/3rd of its population has access to a flush toilet within premises, but there is no noticeable improvement over 2001-11.
Another way to analyze the data is reduction in % households using an open-field toilet, i.e. no toilet within premises.
  • Andhra Pradesh & Maharashtra lead, with a reduction of 17-18% points. However both have the benefit of much larger base in 2001 (65%+) to begin with.
  • West Bengal and Gujarat on the other hand had a relatively smaller base (55%) and were able to reduce it further by 15% and 13% points respectively.
  • Karnataka and Tamil Nadu follow, with a 13-14% points reduction in a relatively higher base of 63-65%.
Combining the two, Andhra Pradesh & Gujarat stand out, perhaps followed by Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. There is a lot more work to be done, a lot more, before we start announcing prizes here.

Let’s next look at the kitchen. Women constitute 49% of our population and a very large part of it plays the role of housewife. As such, the existence of an in-premises kitchen and the type of cooking fuel plays a very large role in determining quality of life for our womenfolk. The table below provide information on # households in each state in 2001 and 2011, and how many of those households have a kitchen within the house.

%Households by type of kitchen facilities (India & Top 12 states, 2001-11)

Source: Census 2001 and 2011

As the table above points out, for India as a whole, only 61% households have some sort of a kitchen within their premises, the rest are cooking in open, either within their house or out on the streets. The surprising number is that we as a country have worsened on this metric – a decline of 3%. Ever growing population and decrease in household size means we need many more houses with kitchens, and we simply don’t have the wealth stock or income flow to build them. Time to hum "India Shining" and "Bharat Nirman" again, folks.

Since the overall country shows a deteriorating performance on this metric, it would be worthwhile to look at states which have shown a positive performance. The right-most column computes such improvement, it should be looked at in conjunction with the growth in number of households in the respective state, also provided in the table. There are five such states which record an improvement, as are highlighted in the table.
  • The most commendable performance (relatively) is perhaps by Tamil Nadu and Karnataka: Both start from a relatively high base of 67% and 82% respectively in 2001, and have delivered an improvement of 7-9% points on such high base during 2001-2011.
  • Then come Gujarat and Kerala, both having delivered ~4% points improvement. While Kerala has delivered on much higher base compared to Gujarat, it had to deal with a lower household growth compared to Gujarat (17% vs 26%).
  • Finally, Andhra Pradesh delivered a 5% points improvement on a much smaller base of 50%.
  • The only other state that deserves a mention is Odisha which has stood its ground during the decade despite having a 23% increase in number of households.
  • UP, MP and Maharashtra are the worst performing states, perhaps followed by West Bengal. Bihar and Rajasthan are somewhere in the middle.
Finally we also need to look at type of cooking fuel used by the population in these states. The table below compares Indian and top 12 states by distribution of households by primary cooking fuel, in 2001 and 2011. 

%Households by primary cooking fuel (India & Top 12 states, 2001-11)

Source: Census 2001 and Census 2011

While LPG is assumed default in urban India, one might be surprised to see that almost half of Indian population uses wood to burn chulhas and cook their daily meals. Multiply that by three and you would get a sense of what half of housewives in India have to put up. Worse, another 17% use biomass (crop residue and cowdung), which produces even more harmful gases and poses serious health risk to the housewife. Usage of kerosene, a healthier option for cooking, has come down, which might imply less subsidy burden on the state (reality may be different due to "leakage"). Less than 30% households use LPG, the desired option.

Come to think of it, the decision to reduce subsidized LPG cylinders by UPA Govt was probably one of the most debated+protested issue by political parties. I wonder why nobody is talking about those who burn wood or cowdung to feed their children, suffering from the resultant smoke. Maybe such sections of society don't have a TV as well, and hence no point in political sound-bytes on them when in front of the camera. 

The above table is another illustration of how LPG subsidy is not reaching the poor anyway, and perhaps how any blanket subsidy never really reaches the poor; in fact it even hinders infrastructure expansion and improvement - so much so that the poor never even becomes a part of the distribution system to benefit from it. In thi case, LPG subsidy means refineries have less incentive to produce LPG. The oil marketing companies (OMCs) invest less in LPG bottling plant infrastructure and distribution technology. Of course the subsidy by Govt is supposed to negate it, but such subsidies are always inadequate and never timely. We saw that in electricity, and we now see it in LPG. Blanket subsidies are good for short term gains, they always come with long term pains. PSU OMCs struggle to maintain their credit ratings necessary for them to import crude, while struggling to improve LPG penetration beyond the urban rich and middle class. 

States which have shown relatively better performance are highlighted for the respective metric in the table above. Inferences for such better performing states are below:
  • All four southern states have shown significant movement of households from firewood to LPG, with Tamil Nadu delivering the best performance followed by Kerala, AP and Karnataka in that order. TN also reduced reliance on kerosene significantly.
  • Maharashtra follows, having moved 14% of its households to LPG, largely from Kerosene (9%), followed by Firewood (4%)
  • Gujarat also puts up a good performance on a relative basis, moving 10% of its households to LPG, almost equally from biomass and kerosene.
  • Other states who deserve a mention: UP has reduced % households using biomass by 9%, most of which have switched to LPG. Bihar also reduced reliance on biomass by 8%, but most of these households seem to be using firewood now instead, hence not much of improvement as the numbers suggest. Promising signs of West Bengal reducing % households using coal, moving a large part to LPG.
Next time one of us bickers about our bathrooms being small, or the extra Rs 400 it costs from 7th LPG cylinder onwards,  perhaps some re-think is in order.

In this country where all political parties fight to recognize certain sections of society as down-trodden on the lines of caste, region and religion, tus justifying demands for more reservations and welfare schemes for such sections, we often forget the most backward and discriminated-against community - the Women of India. Both the above issues affect this section of our society in an order of magnitude higher then the Indian men. Yet, we don't talk about it much. Perhaps CNN-IBN, in its much publicized women empowerment drive "The Power of 49", might do well to prioritize the above issues. (They did talk about women sanitation here, but it ain't enough)

Keeping the cynicism aside, there are a few states, especially the four southern states, Gujarat and Maharashtra who seem to be improving on a faster pace than other states. While it is not sufficient, there are signs of hope from these states. And as always, the analysis stops at 2011, situation might have improved post 2011. Here's wishing to a better India in 2021, when the next census will tell us where we stand.


  1. It's a real matter of shame that we have wasted 65 years only to witness such pathetic performance in these two "most fundamental needs" area. For an inclusive on-ground growth, these two areas have to be the top priority for all state governments.

    Given the non-homogeneity of performance across states, there is a huge scope of cross-learning to fuel even speedier growth. Governments of 'laggard' states MUST come out of their 'political egos' and learn from their counterparts ('forward' states). The role of the central government should be to provide the platform for advocating best practices, define guidelines, set milestones and constantly monitor progress, apart from 'blindly' feeding states with capital resources / monetary support.

    Tree of bodhi, Good work and keep them coming please...

    1. Thanks Saurabh. Glad you find it informative. Hope the cross-learnings does happen across the political divide.


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