The humiliating descriptor for the Indian Railways of being the world’s largest institutional free-discharge toilet does not apply any more. As of March 2021, 100 per cent of passenger coaches have been fitted with bio-toilets. A pledge made in 2010 has been fulfilled.

In 2010, the Railways decided to eliminate the direct discharge of human waste from trains. The Railways ran 13,000 passenger trains daily with 55,000 coaches transporting 24 million passengers daily (equal to the population of Australia), covering 7,321 stations across India.

A train with 24 coaches would have 92 toilets resulting in 4,000 tonnes of human waste being dumped daily on rail tracks across the 70,000-km route of the network. The Supreme Court, too, passed strictures on manual scavenging, as the Railways employed around 95,000 workers in the removal of human biological waste from tracks, stations and coaches.

The bio-digester method, developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), was chosen as the appropriate technology. The Railways’ decision to adopt the ‘IR-DRDO bio-toilets’ came after extensive studies of various other technologies used in advanced countries. These included the Vacuum Flush Technology, Controlled Discharge Systems, Chemical Toilets, and Electrical Incinerating Toilets. All these technologies had complicated issues associated with their usage; and not all of them had to do with the capital costs of installation, but also, largely, the sanitary habits of the Indian travelling public. The efficacy of the IR-DRDO solution had been tested by DRDO in extreme climates and conditions like those at Siachen Glacier.

The current cost of fitting a bio-toilet is about ₹1 lakh. The total programme cost till date is likely to have been in the range of ₹4,000-₹5,000 crore. The implementation phase of this technology threw up a host of operational problems.

In 2017, an IIT-Madras study concluded that these installations were no better than a septic tank. This led to a course correction by the Railways through a dedicated project team.

Tweaks along the route

To address the issue of disposing plastic and non-biodegradable garbage into the toilets , the Railways installed suction machines at major coach depots.

To solve the second challenge, that of flushing system, the Railways decided to go in for bio-vacuum toilets. Bio-vacuum toilets also use bacteria to decompose human waste and operate on vacuum technology, but are not as expensive as traditional vacuum toilets. Feedback from passengers also helped the Railways rectify the deficiencies.

Thanks to these rectification measures, the Railways has fulfilled its 2010 pledge and also bagged the award as the best Ministry for ongoing implementation of the ‘Swachhta Action Plan’.

An Indian School of Business study in February documented six beneficial impacts:

One, there has been a noticeable improvement in the level of cleanliness along railway tracks, and especially at stations.

Two, elimination of labourers involved in manual scavenging and cleaning.

Three, enhanced safety of rolling stock and rail tracks as lack of human waste and spatters on rail tracks and under-gears of rolling stock ensure quality in maintenance work.

Four, reduction in the high risk of health hazards due to unclean toilets and waste-discharge.

Five, replicability of the technology in other environs, helping address the national mission against open-defecation.

Six, creation of an innovative platform by significantly expanding the market for this kind of toilet fitment.

This is a significant and laudable achievement for the Railways.

The writer is the Chairman of Feedback Infra