Cleaning up India’s economic lifeline

Most toilets in train coaches are a hole with a flushing system, so that the excreta falls straight on to the tracks, corroding them and spreading disease


More than a quarter of a million toilets zip up and down the country, the majority of them dropping human poop on to tracks that, too, are open for humans to cross and come in contact with harmful bacteria—all pointing to the fact that Indian Railways is a health hazard. Photo: Mint
More than a quarter of a million toilets zip up and down the country, the majority of them dropping human poop on to tracks that, too, are open for humans to cross and come in contact with harmful bacteria—all pointing to the fact that Indian Railways is a health hazard. Photo: Mint

Dawn was breaking over Delhi as our train began its ritual crawl into the station. This is almost always the case with busy railway stations in India: the last mile never seems to end, sometimes taking up to an hour. If you look out of the window during this hour, you are likely to see dozens of men and boys, possibly residents of nearby slums, squatting on the ground and defecating in peace, unmindful of the slowly passing train and its impatient occupants.

This scene, familiar to most train passengers in India, is a reminder of the problem of open defecation in this land of over 1.2 billion people, a practice associated with poverty and health problems, most notoriously childhood stunting.

But there’s something else happening at precisely the same moment that you look out of the train window. You realize that there’s absolutely no reason for these men and boys squatting outside to be self-conscious or shy. Because dozens of other people inside the train are doing almost exactly the same thing—defecating out into the open, albeit from inside a closed toilet.

Indians have long had a love-hate relationship with the railways. Mahatma Gandhi hated it, blaming it for spreading colonialism, poverty and disease, but then seized it as the most expedient mode of discovering India.

Indian Railways is one of the largest rail networks in the world, its 115,000km of tracks traversing nearly 65,000 route kms. Every day, more than 21,000 trains ferry passengers to and from 8,500 railway stations. Powered by one of the largest budgets, it employs around 1.4 million people.

The railways was introduced to Indians by the British around 160 years ago, chiefly to ease the movement of troops in what was its largest colony; today, Indian Railways not only moves Indian troops around, it transports a staggering 23 million passengers every single day. In turn, their labour feeds a hungry, galloping economy that International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christina Lagarde recently called “really the shining spot in a global economy that is otherwise a little bit gloomy”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he wants to make the railways “the backbone of India’s progress and economic development”.

Heavily subsidized, on an average, the railways bears 43% of the cost of every journey. Yet, under railway minister Suresh Prabhu, reputed to be one of the smartest members of the Modi cabinet, the department saved Rs.8,720 crore this year—chiefly by reducing the cost of power procured for traction by signing long-term agreements, bringing down inventory carrying costs and launching “austerity drives”.

In his rail budget speech on 27 February, Prabhu also mentioned a goal that tied in with Modi’s drive to clean up India—it was to convert existing toilets in trains into bio-toilets. Most toilets in Indian train coaches are just a hole with a flushing system, so that the excreta falls straight on to the train tracks, corroding them and spreading disease.

Eliminating open defecation—a huge health problem—is a government priority. Some progress has already been made. In 2010, 52% of Indians defecated in open spaces, which has come down to 48%. In absolute terms, the numbers have come down from 637 million to 595 million people, according to Unicef, the UN children’s agency.

That’s still over half a billion people—not counting the millions more (remember, 23 million passengers every day) who would defecate directly into the open from inside their train toilets. The rail department’s plan is to build 17,000 bio-toilets this year, making up to 30,000 by the end of next year. Apparently, the plan is on track. But the task is pretty stiff—according to the railway ministry, there were a total of 66,392 passenger coaches in 2013 and, according to the Press Trust of India, each coach has four toilets.

That’s a total of 265,558—or over a quarter of a million toilets zipping up and down the country, the majority of them dropping human poop on to tracks that, too, are open for humans to cross and come in contact with harmful bacteria. In other words, Indian Railways is a health hazard.

Which brings us back to Gandhi and his dim view of Indian trains. In his 1909 book Hind Swaraj, he claimed trains spread the bubonic plague in India, increased the frequency of famines (“because, owing to facility of means of locomotion, people sell their grain and it is sent to the dearest markets”) and accentuate the evil nature of man “bad men fulfil evil designs with greater rapidity”. Eight years later, in another essay, he quite clearly appeared to blame the conditions in third-class coaches in particular and the unhygienic habits of Indians. It marked an interesting departure in Gandhi’s world view.

Gandhi was not alone in holding such views. According to Chittabrata Palit, a historian of Indian science and former professor at Jadavpur University, public response blamed the railways for spreading epidemics in colonial Bengal. “…Epidemics are said to have been caused by the construction of embankment for the railways which led to stagnation of rainwater and breeding of mosquitoes. The other cause was the movement of labour from other provinces”, Palit wrote in the Indian Journal of History of Science in 2008.

Some years ago, former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh called the railways the “largest open toilet in the world”. He’d be surprised to learn that this is not a problem restricted to India or even poor countries. In the UK, all new trains have had toilets tanks fitted in them since the 1990s. But one in 10 still doesn’t have them, posing a potential public health risk. Excreta flew around into gardens close by tracks and bacteria survived for more than a week in samples tested by the BBC.

The bio-toilets the railways is trying out have been developed indigenously. Under the lavatory, there’s a container with a colony of bacteria that convert human waste into water and gas. The gas is released into the atmosphere while the water is chlorinated and then discharged on to the tracks.

An improved version that sucks the waste into the container with a vacuum is being tried out in some 1st class AC coaches and the upscale Shatabdi trains at a cost of Rs.300,000 each. The move to exclude ordinary coaches from this important pilot is hard to understand.

Gandhi realized in 1917 that if misery was being spread through the railways, it was the lack of civic amenities in third-class coaches that was to blame. Nearly 100 years since his essay, the plan to make every toilet a bio-toilet (without exception) could significantly contribute to Modi’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) mission and make India a far more healthy and hygienic place.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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