Indian Railways has become the first public transporter in the world to install bio-toilets on a massive scale. But prompted by the atypical toilet habits of Indians, it is topping the bio-toilet with a unique water-based solution. This hybrid innovation is another first globally. “Indians tend to use a lot of water as part of their toilet habits. People of most countries use paper,” said a railway official.

This fiscal, the public transporter is installing 90,000 bio-toilets in 22,500 coaches, which will be the highest ever. “The deadline for installing bio-toilets in the entire coaching fleet has been advanced to March 2019, instead of October 2019. This shrinks the available time by almost a third,” Ravindra Gupta, Member-Rolling Stock, Railway Board, told BusinessLine . The step is aimed at making train journeys open-defecation free.

Bio-toilets have bio-tanks, where bacteria break down faecal matter to water and bio-gases, preventing waste from falling on to tracks. But these toilets don’t have a solution for the excess use of water by passengers. The coaches have limited storage capacity, and in many instances water runs out.

So, Indian Railways plans to test hybrid toilets — bio-vacs — which are bio-toilets with the vacuum flush facility. It is procuring 2,000 bio-vacuum hybrid toilets for 500 coaches and will scale up depending on the response.

“In bio-vacuum hybrid toilets, we use vacuum systems for flushing to use the water for a longer duration,” said Gupta.

The bio-vaccum hybrid toilets are expensive and are only being tried in limited numbers. “Each bio-toilet now costs ₹1 lakh. Each vacuum toilet costs ₹2 lakh, which can come down to ₹1.5 lakh if we procure in (large) volumes,” he said. Responses to the bio-vacs over the next six months will determine if they become standard fare on trains.

Flights use vacuum toilets, too, but fly fewer people, and have suction machines at airport to suck out filth.

Boon of the bins

Keeping the coaches clean inside is also a struggle for the Railways, with the loos being choked with litter: plastic bottles, sanitary napkins, and other inorganic waste.

Railways is betting on extra dustbins and support from users to solve this portion of problem.“We will put dustbins in all toilets — where people can throw paper or sanitary napkins. Four dustbins in toilets of each coach. The janitors — part of on-board house keeping outsourced staff — will be periodically cleaning the dustbins,” said Gupta. “We are trying to educate users, as stated by the Railway Minister, and over time users will learn,” he hopes.

Outside of dustbins, all these solutions are unique to trains in India. “Globally, nobody provides bio-toilets. They use vacuum toilets. They do not have 36-40 hour journeys. From a size perspective, India is like a continent. Globally, they don't even provide four toilets in a coach — they usually provide one toilet,” said Gupta. Using water, and not using dustbin inside the loo seems to be an unique Indian problem, too.