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covering the tracks

Indian Railways just made yet another futile promise to end this terrible practice

The Indian Railways has just made a remarkable undertaking. It has officially told the National Human Rights Commission that bio-toilets will be installed in all coaches by 2022.

The World Health Organization deadline for ending open defecation is 2025.

I have watched the railways closely for the better part of two decades. If the organization’s track record is anything to go by, you can be certain that this deadline will not be met. Innumerable rail ministers in the past have made tall promises in this regard. Little has changed. Coaches continue to dump human waste directly on to the tracks.

Railway minister Sadananda Gowda gave the game away in his railway 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 stations”. This is a prescription for vacillation. “Sufficient numbers” means you can’t hold the minister to account later. The minister should have cracked the whip on top management and ordered an end to the menace in mission mode within two years.

Parliament should take note of the Railways’ reply to the NHRC and bring it to account. In his February 2008 speech, railway minister Lalu Prasad said trials of green toilets were “extremely encouraging”. He had provided Rs4,000 crore ($666 million) “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 31 March 2012. Two years later the Railways want an eight year extension. The Parliament is being taken for a ride.

One wonders whether the Railways attach any sanctity to budget speeches and the promises made in Parliament. If Lalu Prasad found the trial results of green toilets encouraging enough to extend them to all trains, how can railway minister Dinesh Trivedi say four years later in February 2012 that “bio-toilets are currently under extended trials to test their efficacy and suitability”?

In a year that should have marked the end of open defecation, Trivedi mentioned the word toilet thirteen times in his speech and promised to equip 2,500 coaches with bio-toilets. A reform-minded minister, he acknowledged that hole-in-the-floor toilets were a health hazard and caused loss to the Railways from corrosion of tracks.

Green toilets were first mentioned by railway minister C K Jaffer Sharief in his March 1995 speech. In view of its commitment to the environment, he said, the Railways had experimented with 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 in trains, he assured.

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 open defecation by 2012, the Railways had taken up the development of bio-toilets under the Railways Technology Mission on Railway Safety.

Sanitation in trains has engaged railway ministers only since the last decade. Even during the Emergency, when trains were famed for running on time, railway minister Kamalapati Tripathi made a passing reference in his March 1976 speech to improvement of the “standard of coach cleanliness and train lighting”.

The 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 the following year, he said the coach factory at Madras (as it was then called) had begun manufacturing longer second-class coaches with six toilets instead of four. In his 1979 budget speech, he mentioned that second-class coaches which could accommodate 77 passengers would have two wash basins and taps (and ashtrays) outside the toilets. (Such trivia finding mention in a budget speech speaks of Indian Railway’s agility in responding to consumer needs).

Till the end of the 1990s, access was the 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. She was silent on the issue as railway minister in prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet. In 2012, Pawan Kumar Bansal spoke of “progressive extension of bio-toilets in trains”.

And so the charade continues.

This article is a part of Quartz India. For more, follow this link.

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