In the same week that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi said that toilets are more important than temples, a small advertisement appeared in some Indian newspapers. It announced a competition to reinvent the toilet. This contest has been launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with the Indian government, and seeks new ideas on how to build a new toilet for the new century—one that kills pathogens, is affordable and that people actually want to use. The Indian challenge comes two years after a similar global challenge. A blog posted on the foundation website explains that it seeks “funding research to develop waterless, hygienic toilets that do not require a sewer connection or electricity and cost less than five cents per user per day".

Nearly half the Indian population defecates in the open. The lack of modern sanitation facilities is one major reason why diarrhoea is rampant in India, and drains the body of nutrients. The economist Dean Spears has shown in his detailed research that the high prevalence of stunting among Indian children—62 million children at last count—is strongly linked to poor sanitation. So are high levels of malnutrition, because of infections that reduce the ability of the human body to absorb nutrients from the food we eat.

It is interesting that the Indian partner in the toilets competition is not the ministry of drinking water and sanitation. Yes, there is actually such a ministry, but one that is considered so unimportant that Gurudas Kamat of the Congress quit in a huff after he was given charge of this ministry because he considered it too insignificant. Anyway, the government agency that is partnering the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the ministry of science and technology. This tells us a lot about the importance of technology in solving important social problems in India, a fact that is unfortunately not given enough attention in the national discourse.

Let us rewind a few decades. Fears were rife about the world being overwhelmed by a population explosion. Many feared that millions will die of hunger as the population would outstrip food supply. William Paddock and Paul Paddock wrote a chilling book: Famine, 1975!—America’s decision: Who will survive. They argued that the US was one of a handful of countries that grew enough excess grain to send to the hungry countries, but even its food aid would not be enough to help each beggar nation.

The Paddocks argued that the US should divide hungry countries into three categories: those that can be saved, those that will stumble through with some food aid and those that were hopeless. The US should not waste its aid on the third category of countries, but let them starve. India was in the third category.

Famine 1975! was published in 1967, when India had been hit by two successive droughts. Ships laden with US wheat would dock at Mumbai and the food in their holds would be rushed to various parts of the country, or what some people described as a ship-to-mouth existence. The Paddocks may have been especially dark in their prognosis, but milder versions of these fears were common. The world population has nearly doubled since then but the threat of mass hunger has receded. The reason: new farming technologies that spread as a result of the Green Revolution. It was science that saved the world from mass starvation.

The quest to build a new toilet is an attempt to develop new technologies to address an old social problem. The ability of the world to grow more food is also a similar case. Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, US, has challenged designers to come up with a $300 (around 18,540) house that will give the poor safety as well as dignity. What began as a modest blog post written in 2011 with marketing consultant Christian Sarkar has now almost grown into a movement of architects, designers, engineers and investors who want to build a cheap but safe house. There are ongoing pilot projects in Haiti and India.

In an article published in The Times of India on 18 August, entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa provocatively wrote: “Technology is advancing so rapidly that soon we will be able to solve some of humanity’s grand challenges. Imagine a world with unlimited food, water and energy—in which we prevent disease rather than cure it and in which our life spans increase along with our wisdom and knowledge. This is what is possible, not in future centuries, but in the next two decades." He provided examples of prototypes to provide clean drinking water, cheap solar energy and meat grown in laboratories.

The importance of technology to address important social challenges such as sanitation or clean water or nutritious food is unfortunately underestimated in India. What Modi, and rural development minister Jairam Ramesh before him, have said about the importance of sanitation is absolutely true, especially in a country that seems to have forgotten that its most ancient cities in the Indus Valley had superb sanitation systems. The question is: What role government policy will assign to new technologies in the quest to address a massive social challenge that affects the health of hundreds of millions of people.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.

Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns