Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh said on Friday that women in the country demand mobile phones, not toilets.
"Sanitation is a much more difficult issue (than telecommunication). Now we are talking of behavioural changes, and women demand mobile phones. They are not demanding toilets. That is the mindset we have," Ramesh said at the launch of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) report on Millennium Development Goals.
Ramesh said that India is a land of paradoxes, as the country accounts for almost 60% of those relieving themselves in the open across the globe - at a time when it has 700 million mobile phones. "(There is) 60% of open defecation in a country which has 700 million mobile phones. ....We build toilets but the toilets are not used."
Ramesh's remarks raised several eyebrows in the audience - social scientists and women activists among them. Countering his claims, the host reminded Ramesh of a Madhya Pradesh tribal woman whose insistence on toilet facilities had not only compelled her husband to take up the issue with the panchayat at his native in Jheetudhana, but also made Sulabh International adopt the village for its "Total Cleanliness Drive".
Explaining that sanitation was a difficult issue, Ramesh said the coming months would see the evidence of changes - with respect to funding and management - in areas of drinking water and sanitation.