FOUR essentials — temples, toilets, tablets (computers) and tap water — are unrelated. But in India, they are. Their uneven availability affects the human development indicators.
Straight-talking minister Jairam Ramesh has sparked a debate saying there are more temples in India than toilets.
He is right. Facts, established in the United Nation's Human Development Index, among other authoritative indices, substantiate his statement. Temples are needed for spiritual cleansing while toilets are for the physical one.
But why compare the two?, demands the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Not surprising, since a major political plank that brought it to power was a promise of a temple at a disputed site in Ayodhya, believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram.
A temple, basically, is a "house of god", and is not faith-specific. But for Indians, its connotation is Hindu. Other faiths have mosques, churches, viharas for Buddhists, the Sikhs have gurdwaras, the Jains have derasars, the Zoroastrians have agiyaris and the Jews have synagogues.
India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, himself secular, called dams he built on the rivers "temples of modern India". He knew "temple" would jell with his compatriots.
As for toilets, when I wrote here about sanitation in India, I was mildly berated for foisting a yucky issue on Malaysian readers. But I cannot ignore it. Now, Ramesh is pointing to the embarrassing fact that millions do not have access to it and relieve themselves in the open.
Men do it — shamelessly or helplessly. But women have privacy problems. A Planning Commission study has concluded that one reason girls drop out of schools was a lack of toilets.
Ramesh's statement is just a nudge to those who spend billions on enriching temples or building new ones, hoping to achieve nirvana. They ought to divert some of their riches for the lowly, worldly, task of building toilets.
The contrast is clear. Faith-based practices separate the ritually pure from the impure, while rational scientific discourse separates the progressive from the backward. The toilets are essential, but the responsibility rests first and foremost on the state.
The best intervention in this field has come neither from the state, nor from the philanthropists, but from Sulabh International, India's largest non-profit body, with a movement in the 1970s to liberate scavengers.
Using low-cost hygienic technology Sulabh has devised 26 toilet designs of varying budgets, with the help of local materials, factoring in existing water scarcity.
It has built toilets in Afghanistan. Its designs have been adapted in many countries.
The temple versus toilet issue needs to be seen in the socio-economic context. The religious, too, have to be clean before entering any shrine. And water, like toilets, is essential.
Water for drinking and washing remains a problem in a country criss-crossed by mighty rivers. A 1960s plan to link them into a "garland" was found to be too expensive.
Today, it would cost several times more.
With water being a state subject, the Federal Government can do little. The Supreme Court's appeal endorsing the garland has gone un-responded by all concerned.
In the last decade, the mobile phone has made communications widespread, easier and cheaper. Critics point to greater access to telephony than toilets.
Like the telephone, the tablet. Although far behind China and the developed world, India is fast moving into cyberspace and getting computerised. Its leadership in Internet-run commerce is both the cause and consequence of this spread.
Most international brands are competing for market space. While the government is not into building toilets and is slow on generating drinking water, it is promoting cheap tablet computers for a vast and hungry market. The newest one is called "Akaash".
The delay in its supply prompted a tiff between federal Human Resource Minister Kapil Sibal, who is promoting it, and Chief Minister Narendra Modi of Gujarat.
The message is: "Don't just make promises, keep them."
Cash doles and food form the backbone of older poverty-alleviation schemes. At the UN, BJP veteran L.K. Advani praised a job guarantee scheme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, although it was enacted and promoted by a government he opposes.
From cash and food to jobs; and now gadgets that can help generate the first three. This is a logical step forward.
Last year, thousands of landless labourers from underdeveloped Uttar Pradesh did not throng the greener pastures of Punjab for harvesting crops. They stayed home to receive the government-promised tablets. This is an undreamt acquisition for the illiterate poor. The children will hopefully shed their parents' handicaps.
The Indian story is glass half-full, but the level is rising.