My last memory of the Old Delhi Railway Station was of overwhelming stench and filth. The PM’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, launched on October 2, has brought welcome relief. People still litter the station but the tracks are flushed and disinfected with lime. Does this signal a change in the Indian Railways’ attitude towards insanitation? There are grounds for doubt.
In July, the railways told the National Human Rights Commission in response to a query that they will put an end to open defecation in stations and on tracks by 2022. Is Parliament listening? Do the solemn promises made in past railway budgets to the representatives of the people mean nothing?
In his February 2008 speech, rail minister Lalu Prasad said trials of green toilets were “extremely encouraging”. He provided R4,000 crore “to put a permanent end to the problem of discharge from train toilets by providing green toilets in all 36,000 coaches by end of the 11th plan.” The plan ended on March 31, 2012.
How is it then that a month before the expiry of that deadline, railway minister Dinesh Trivedi said in his budget speech (in February 2012) that “bio-toilets are currently under extended trials to test their efficacy and suitability?” Was Lalu Prasad misled by Railway Board officials into giving a false assurance to Parliament? Ministers are migratory birds but should not Parliament call upon the railways as an ongoing enterprise to explain?
In the year that should have marked the end of untreated discharge in the railway system, Trivedi said “2,500 coaches will be equipped with bio-toilets.” The railways that year had 46,700 coaches. Far from equipping most of them with bio-toilets, they did not even seem to have made an earnest attempt. Trivedi mentioned the word “toilet” 13 times in his speech. A reform-minded minister (sacked by party leader Mamata Banerjee for that reason), he acknowledged that hole-in-the-floor toilets were a health hazard and also caused loss to the railways because of track corrosion.
Railway minister Sadananda Gowda gave the game away in his budget speech when he said “bio-toilets will be increased in sufficient numbers in trains in order to mitigate the problem of direct discharge of human waste on the tracks and platform aprons at station.” This is a prescription for vacillation. “Sufficient numbers” has chalta hai (lackadaisical) written all over it. The minister should have cracked the whip on top management and ordered an end to the menace in mission mode within two years.
The WHO’s deadline for ending open defecation across the world is 2025. I believe that the WHO will have better luck in meningitis-infested Gorakhpur and the shanty towns of sub-Saharan Africa than with the Indian Railways. The Railway Board has shown time and again that it is incapable of enlightened action.
Green toilets were first mentioned by railway minister CK Jaffer Sharief in his March 1995 speech. In view of its commitment to the environment, he said that the railways had tested bio-toilets in a few coaches. The results were “encouraging”. Vacuum evacuation of waste was also being tried out. The better of the two systems would be soon installed, he assured Parliament.
His successors—Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee—made no mention of bio-toilets or of sanitation in trains. Picking up from where Sharief left ten years before, Lalu Prasad said in his July 2005 speech that as per the government’s policy of total sanitation and end of untreated discharge by 2012, the railways had taken up the development of bio-toilets under the Technology Mission on Railway Safety.
Sanitation in trains has engaged rail ministers only since the last decade. Even during Emergency, when trains were famed for running on time, rail minister Kamalapati Tripathi made only a passing reference in his March 1976 speech on improvement of the “standard of coach cleanliness and train lighting.”
Socialist Madhu Dandavate was very solicitous of passenger comfort. In June 1977, he said he had ordered the manufacture of prototype second-class coaches with more toilets for the convenience of passengers on long-distance trains with few stops. In February of the following year, he said the coach factory at Madras (now Chennai) had begun manufacturing longer second-class coaches with six toilets instead of the usual four. In his 1979 budget speech, he mentioned that second-class coaches which could accommodate 77 passengers would have two wash basins and taps outside the toilets. Such trivia finding mention in a budget speech speaks of Indian Railways’ agility in responding to consumer needs.
Till the end of the 1990s, access to toilets was a chief concern.
The focus on sanitation began in the following decade. Regular homage is now being paid to green toilets. “We propose to introduce at least ten rakes with green toilets,” Mamata Banerjee said in her 2010 speech. Pawan Kumar Bansal, her successor one step removed, and the first Congress minister in Rail Bhavan after 17 years, spoke of “progressive extension of bio-toilets in trains.”
The railways, as it is currently constituted, is incapable of resolute action. The Kakodkar committee, appointed by Trivedi, rightly said that the railways suffer from an “execution bug”. The top management of the railways may individually be persons of competence and good intentions, but the Railway Board is collectively dysfunctional. Corruption, careerism, departmentalism and feudalism run though the system.
The government has now constituted a committee under economist Bibek Debroy to restructure the Railways into a business-oriented organisation by separating enterprise management function from policy-making. Hopefully, it will not end up as yet another debating forum. Otherwise, we will see the charade of another sanitation drive a year from now.
By Vivian Fernandes
The author is a senior journalist