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Vivian Fernandes
Tuesday , July 29, 2014 at 20 : 17

Will open defecation end on Indian Railways by the 2025 WHO deadline?


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The Railways have just kicked the lota eight years down the road. In a communication to the National Human Rights Commission, they have said that they will install bio-toilets in all coaches by 2022. The World Health deadline for ending open defecation is 2025. I can swear on the mother of the last squatter that the WHO will have better luck in the badlands of Gorakhpur and the shanty towns of sub-Saharan Africa than with the Railways. It will have to extend the deadline because the Railways will still be shi**ing on the tracks. The Railway Board is a feudal organization which is incapable of enlightened action.

Railway Minister Sadananad 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 station.' This is a prescription for vacillation. 'Sufficient numbers' has chalta hai 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.

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 Rs 4,000 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 31 March 2012. Two years later the Railways want an eight year extension! Is Parliament 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, he said 'in the next year, 2,500 coaches will be equipped with bio-toilets.' Trivedi mentioned the word toilet thirteen times in his speech. A reform-minded minister (sacked by party leader Mamata Bannerjee for that reason), he acknowledged that hole-in-the-floor toilets were a health hazard and caused loss to the Railways from corrosion of tracks. The two committees he appointed were scathing on the Railways.

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, 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. He had provided Rs 215 crore including for clean toilets at railway stations.

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 agility in responding to consumer needs).    

Till the end of the 1990s, access was a 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 Behari Vajpayee's cabinet. In 2012, Pawan Kumar Bansal spoke of 'progressive extension of bio-toilets in trains.'

And so the charade continues...


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More about Vivian Fernandes

Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
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