October 18, 2014, Economic Times Blog
Ever since the Railway Committee started its work, whenever people run into me, even if it is at a social occasion, they buttonhole me and offer suggestions about what should be done to improve the Railways. This is understandable and desirable, since it is a manifestation of interest in the Railways. Often, though not always, these are complaints about passenger amenities, or their lack, and suggestions about improving these. Passenger amenities are only one aspect of improving the Railways, though this is visible, and is representative of most citizen interface with the Railways. Toilets figure towards the top of any average complaint list, toilets in stations and toilets on trains. For the moment, let me confine myself to toilets on trains. As everyone knows, Indian trains began to function from 1853. But toilets on trains had to wait till 1909. There is an oft-quoted, and therefore somewhat clichéd letter, written by Okhil Chandra Sen to the Deputy Superintendent of Sahibganj in 1909, familiar to all those who know about Indian railway history. The original letter is in the National Railway Museum, Delhi. This led to the introduction of toilets on trains.
Here is that self-explanatory letter. “Dear Sir, I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with LOTAH in one hand & DHOTI in the next when I am fall over & expose all my shocking to men & female women on platform. I am got leaved Ahmedpur station. This too much bad, if passenger go to make dung that dam guard not wait train minutes for him. I am therefor pray your honour to make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big report to papers.” Sahibganj (in Jharkhand) has seen better days, from the Railway point of view. It is no longer on the Howrah-Delhi main line. Ahmedpur is in West Bengal and Mr Sen must have travelled along the Bardhman-Sainthia section of what is called the Sahibganj loop.
IR (Indian Railways) has around 50,000 passenger coaches, a little less than 50,000 if you exclude EMUs (electric multiple units), a little more than 50,000 if you include EMUs. So these have to be fitted with toilets, say 4 per coach. This blog is only about toilets, not about cleaning and maintaining them. If it’s a short-distance train, you might legitimately argue you don’t need 4 toilets per coach. 2 might do and you might make them even more basic than those required for long-distance. Traditionally, IR toilets have provided for water and the waste has been discharged onto tracks. That’s a terrible idea from the sanitation point of view, especially when on a train is at a station. Tracks are corroded and so are fittings on the under-carriages. Why can’t we have toilets on trains that are like those in the West? What about the West? In some places in the West, you have what are called controlled discharge toilets (CDTs). These store waste in tanks and discharge them when the train attains a minimum speed. Three problems with these. First, you are still discharging on tracks, which is what you want to avoid. Second, these require trains to attain a minimum speed. Sometimes, trains don’t pick up that minimum speed at all.
Alternatively, at the other end, when a station has a long platform, the discharge begins before the train has left the station. Third, CDTs don’t work well when people use water, as opposed to toilet paper. Hence, no CDTs, though they have been used on Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duranto. Almost 3000 coaches have actually been fitted with CDTs. Moving on, at best, on better trains (where people don’t use that much water), you can have tanks that don’t discharge, but have tanks that are cleaned. This is what happens with planes. However, with the large number of passengers who travel on trains, this won’t work except on short-distance trains, and those where people are unlikely to use water. Even if this were to be attempted, coaches need redesigning.
Therefore, IR has now veered around to bio-toilets, designed with DRDO collaboration. Bacteria decompose the waste. Some stuff is released as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Whatever is left is chlorinated and disinfected liquid that can be released onto the tracks. In tests, the effluent hasn’t had any toxic effects on rats and fish. Since 2011, almost 5,000 coaches have been fitted with these bio-toilets, on Express trains like GWL-BSB Bundelkhand, GHY-MAS Egmore, Indore-Gwalior, Lucknow-Mumbai Pushpak, Jammu Tawi-Indore, NZM-Indore Malwa, NZM-Indore Intercity, Mumbai-BSB Mahanagri and Kochuveli-Bangalore. These are like trial runs, though you may not have noticed them. There is a decision that all new coaches will have bio-toilets, a decision that will effectively be implemented from 2016-17. Sounds good, but there are a couple of problems. First, for a new coach (with 4 toilets), bio-toilets cost Rs 3 lakhs per coach. But for an old coach, which has to be retroactively fitted, it costs Rs 15 lakhs per coach. Among other things, because these toilets add to weight, and ordinary coaches are heavily loaded, the weldings/mountings fail. The coaches have to cut open, so that these can be reinforced. Assuming you can spare the coaches, that’s quite a sum of money. But there is a decision that from 2021-22, all coaches will have bio-toilets.
The second problem is more serious. People stuff other things into toilets – polythene bags, sanitary napkins, diapers, bottles, pouches. These aren’t always bio-degradable. In those trial runs, one coach per train has come back with this kind of problem. Sure, there are waste-bins outside toilets. But passengers don’t always use them. For sanitary napkins/diapers, you can’t reasonably expect passengers to come out and use those bins. You need bins inside toilets, like aircraft. But bins inside toilets stink, unless they are regularly cleaned. Therefore, you realize the broad problem. There are multiple kinds of passenger segments. It’s one thing to lick a problem for a train that travels for no more than 24 hours (even easier for 8 hours). It is another thing to lick a problem for a train than travels for 72 hours.
October 18, 2014, Economic Times Blog