For a Swachh Bharatiya Rail

Imagine being bitten by a rat, not once but twice! That is what happened recently to a person travelling in a train to Chennai. The passenger, rather than reacting hysterically, calmly squeezed the bite wound, before complaining to the railway authorities and seeking medical aid. The local railway authorities, while expressing regret, told the passenger that the rake (train formation) is maintained at Mumbai, implying that the responsibility for the presence of the pesky rodent lay elsewhere.

Now, why should a rat be found in a train? To be sure, railways and rats (and bandicoots and mice) have had a long association going back almost to the advent of the railways in India in the mid-nineteenth century. But while in the past, rats and their kindred species were largely confined to goods sheds, parcel offices and occasionally got sucked into train vacuum pipes (now thankfully defunct with the advent of airbrakes), now they have become frequent travellers in reserved and AC coaches. The average passenger is wont to attribute this to the utter negligence, callousness, and inefficiency of a government-run monopoly. However such a conclusion would be simplistic and hasty.

Ideal environment for rats

Some of the major train maintenance centres like the one in Chennai are located in the midst of thickly populated urban agglomerations. These are not enclosed or restricted spaces but open yards. Because of the washing and wet cleaning of the train formations, the inspection pits and surrounding areas are usually damp. Discarded food and waste matter including human excrement expelled from train formations coming in for maintenance add to the problem. This makes an ideal environment for rats, cockroaches and the like to breed. Pest control measures can at best be in the nature of a holding action. The current antiquated system of open yards is a carry over of a bygone era. Unfortunately, this aspect has never received the attention it has deserved.

The answer obviously is to have totally sanitised and covered state-of-the-art maintenance centres that can accommodate train formations of 24 or 26 coaches, with strict access control, totally dry inspection pits, and other facilities apart from separate washing bays with waste water reclamation. With the progressive introduction of modern designs of toilets, direct discharge of human waste to the outside can be avoided.

This is not some utopian scenario; what is suggested above are exactly the type of facilities that will be set up for the maintenance of the much-hyped bullet trains. There is no reason, therefore, why over the next decade or so similar facilities should not be set up, at least in major urban centres, to service trains used by the aam aadmi . But even with such improved facilities, due to the steady increase in the number of trains each year, stabling of train formations out in the open cannot be totally avoided. This entails keeping the yards also in a reasonable state of cleanliness, free of litter and unwanted vegetation.

Further, with the intensive utilisation of train formations, they are often kept on station platforms for a long time and turned back after “dry” cleaning, with some unintended benefits for the rodent population. For railway stations are the other major centres for the proliferation of rodents and other pests. There are two reasons for this: first, the easy availability of edible garbage and second, the plentiful supply of perishables such as fish on the platforms. Indian Railways must perhaps be the only major railway system in the world where fare-paying passengers have to jostle for space with huge mounds of parcels scattered on the platforms of all major stations. This tyranny of the parcels is bound to continue unless there is complete segregation of parcels and passenger traffic. Studies have been conducted in the past towards this end, but no tangible progress has been achieved.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has rightly emphasised cleanliness as a goal. It is high time, therefore, that attention is directed towards setting right the infrastructural shortcomings that contribute directly to insanitary conditions in railway premises and trains. While the images of ministers and senior officials posing with the broom may provide smart photo-ops, it will take more than the broom to clean up the Railways.

With more than 12,600 trains carrying 23 million passengers every day, Indian Railways must be that unique institution in the country that generates the largest volume and variety of garbage (including human waste) rivalling many large towns. To expect this huge volume of trash to be dealt with by an army of cleaning staff with brooms and such implements is to totally misjudge the nature and scale of the problem.

Comparisons are frequently drawn between the spotless premises and train interiors of railway systems abroad and the woeful condition of trains and stations in India. What is blithely overlooked is the fact that in those countries all public spaces, not only trains and stations, are generally litter-free, not because they employ an army of safaiwallas with brooms but because of the innate civic sense of the citizens. This is not an excuse for railway premises and trains being dirty or being infested with rats, cockroaches and the like. But while there are internal issues such as upgrading of maintenance facilities and segregation of parcel traffic involving heavy investments that the Railways themselves have to deal with, an equally important input is the positive contribution that the millions of railway users can make in ensuring a clean, litter-free environment. The attitude “it is my privilege to litter, your duty to clean” has to go.

Working in silos

The example of the rat bite shows how railway officials are unable to see the problem from the point of view of customers. For customers it is irrelevant where the train is maintained or from where the rat boarded the train. The problem here is with the structure of the railways organised in silos of functional departments. Thus, while train maintenance is with one department, station maintenance and sanitation are with another. With such split responsibility, shifting of blame between departments and even between railway zones becomes an almost instinctive, spontaneous organisational response.

A recently set up Railway Committee has been asked to spell out measures to ensure that railway departments don’t work in silos. The Committee will do well to examine that waste management is dealt with in its entirety from initial generation to final disposal. This should be a major contribution towards achieving the goal of a “Swachh Bharatiya Rail.”

(K. Balakesari is Former Member Staff, Railway Board.)

The Indian attitude, ‘it is my privilege to litter, your duty to clean’, has to go

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