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New Delhi: To improve toilet and sanitation conditions in the Indian Railways and railway stations, rural development minister Jairam Ramesh said Tuesday he had proposed that the existing 50,000 passenger railway coaches be retrofitted with new toilets that have bio-digesters to eliminate waste within the units themselves.

Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh.

The total cost of retrofitting existing coaches would work out to 500 crore that both sides would share equally, Ramesh said. The process would take about four-five years, he said.

The existing toilet system dumps waste directly on to the tracks. Apart from the stench and hygiene conditions, the practice leads to clogging of rail lines at busy stations, PTI reported.

Coaches currently being manufactured will be fitted with the new toilet -- costing about 1 lakh apiece -- designed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Ramesh said.

Despite being one of the fastest-growing emerging economies, access to adequate sanitation remains abysmally low in India. According to the Unicef-World Health Organisation Joint Monitoring Programme Report 2010, nearly 60% of India’s 1.1 billion people still practise open defecation.

A report by a committee constituted by the railways had pointed out that apart from the issue of hygiene, the existing open-discharge toilets had “serious safety implications arising out of corrosion of rails and related hardware as well as poor maintenance of under carriage equipment," PTI reported.

According to Ramesh, his ministry was also looking at a proposal to run a train -- the Nirmal Bharat Express -- to spread the message of sanitation across the country. “The plan for this will have to be drawn up," the minister said adding that it would be modelled on the Red Ribbon Express that spreads awareness about HIV/AIDS in the country.

elizabeth.r@livemint.com

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