Railways: Choice and Competition - VIII

by Bibek Debroy - Jan 18, 2015 06:13 AM
Railways: Choice and Competition - VIII

Though they come for an exorbitant price, bio-toilets will be fitted to all new coaches beginning 2016-17, as dispensing waste on the tracks damages them and controlled discharge toilets used in the West don’t work under Indian conditions.

The standard caveat applies. Which is: I am a Member of a Railway Committee. What I have to say—if it spills over from the factual to my own views—has nothing to do with what the Committee will necessarily recommend.

In the last piece, I talked about food and some aspects of cleanliness, those concerning food. A more persistent complaint is that about toilets and their cleanliness. Toilets figure towards the top of any complaint list.

With such massive number of people plying in trains, keeping toilets clean is a challenge for the Indian Railways.
With such massive number of people plying in trains, keeping toilets clean is a challenge for the Indian Railways.

There is an oft-quoted — and therefore somewhat clichéd — letter, written by Okhil Chandra Sen to the District 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, or so runs the assertion.

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 Sen must have travelled along the Bardhman-Sainthia section of what is called the Sahibganj loop. The assertion about this letter leading to toilets on trains is not true.

Upper classes began to have toilets on trains in the 1870s. The Sen letter probably led to the introduction of toilets in the lower classes. However, for a long time, toilets in lower classes had no lights and no running water. But that is a separate story.

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 four per coach. If it’s a short-distance train, you might legitimately argue you don’t need four toilets per coach; two might do and you might make them even more basic than those required for long-distance. This has a bit to do with what I have said earlier, about there being too much attempt to standardise coaches and not allowing segmentation.

Traditionally, IR toilets have provided for water and the waste has been discharged onto the tracks. That’s a terrible idea from the sanitation point of view, especially when 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, 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 four 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 welding/mountings fail. The coaches have to be 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 realise 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.

What about cleaning and maintaining toilets? Why do toilets stink? As a passenger, why do you find them dirty and smelly? When are the toilets in bad shape? That’s an important question. Do the toilets stink when the train starts at its originating station, when it has come fresh from the yard? It has been cleaned at the yard. It shouldn’t stink then, unless the inspection has been tardy. (Not all such cleaning is departmental. It has been outsourced.)

To be properly cleaned, you need 6 hours for a train. If the incoming train is late, sometimes, you don’t have those 6 hours. (It is rare that there is a spare rake.) In such cases, the train will be inadequately cleaned at the yard. More typically, the toilets become dirty en route, unable to cope with the load.

In the good old days of steam engines, a train used to stop every 100 km to pick up water. That was the time when you could clean the train, an option that no longer exists. For AC and trains with fewer halts, cleaning at halts is no longer a viable option.

Cleaners, so to speak, have to be on the moving train and that is easier said than done. In addition, I detect two additional problems, having travelled on such trains. First, because of the air-conditioning, windows in toilets are often completely sealed, leading to inadequate ventilation. Second, the water used for flushing isn’t enough because of the water scarcity.

I will continue on other aspects of passenger amenities on the train next week.

Bibek Debroy is a noted Economist. His 10-volume translation of The Mahabharata is one of the most seminal works in contemporary Indology. He was a member of the Swarajya Advisory Board.
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