Mili Singh, 24, spends five hours every day commuting from Kalyan to Goregaon and back. Her only request to the railway authorities – make the toilets on Mumbai’s railway platforms “usable”.
A survey conducted by a research organisation, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), in 2010, revealed the shocking state of toilet facilities provided by the railways.
According to the survey report, there are just 355 toilet seats and 673 urinals for the 6.3 million strong commuter population on the entire Central, Harbour and Western routes of the suburban railway network!. Not surprisingly, most commuters HT spoke to complained of long queues in the lavatories at major stations.
Shefali Rao, 18, doesn’t use the toilets at railway stations but still has a problem. Every time she walks past a toilet on a railway platform, she has to hold her nose. “The stink around the toilets is unbearable so using them is out of the question,” said the KC College student. “I don’t remember ever using the toilets on railway platforms. Even when the urge is strong, I prefer to hold on till I reach home,” she said. Rao travels from Kanjurmarg to Churchgate every day.
Since a majority of Mumbai’s commuters have no option but to travel by train, they prefer to turn a blind eye and put up with the abysmal facilities on offer. “The worst part is that all of us have got used to it. We see no point in complaining about the condition of toilets and the quality of food anymore,” said, Pushpa Prasad, 24, Santacruz resident.
“The washroom at CST station is crowded all through the day -- it needs to be designed better. More space should be allotted to increase the number of urinals at least on major stations,” said Chandramohan Vaidya, 64, an architect. Irregular water supply is another grouse. “Water supply is erratic. Also, workers appointed by the contractors are extremely lax. They don’t clean the toilets regularly. The contractors must be pulled up by railway authorities,” said Prashant Chandavarkar, 42, a Vikhroli resident.
Women face a lot more problems than men; most of the ladies’ toilets at smaller stations are locked. The ORF survey said that 93 per cent of the toilets that were found to be ‘closed’ or ‘out of use’ were those meant for women.
Following the ORF report, a public interest litigation was filed by counsel MP Vashi in August 2010 against Central Railway (CR) and Western Railway (WR) for inadequacy and poor quality of toilets. The case is pending in the Bombay high court.
Senior Divisional Commercial Manager of CR, Atul Rane, said efforts are being made to improve sanitation at railway platforms. “Before 2009, toilets on only 17 stations were handed over to private players. But now, that number has gone up to 45,” he said.
Rane admitted that the railway authorities face certain limitations in maintaining washrooms. “Lack of funds cannot be ruled out. Railway authorities also face a dilemma – should toilets be perceived as a revenue centre, or as a liability of the railways towards its passengers,” he said. The responsibility for maintaining the toilets lies with the station managers, Rane pointed out. Therefore, complaints about unclean or locked toilets should be registered with them, as this forms the database for the railways to take note of grievances and address them, he added.
However, station managers claimed they face many problems. “Often, contractors do not appoint a caretaker or cleaner for ladies’ toilets. This is because ladies’ toilets are rarely used and so they they incur losses. If we keep the toilet open without a caretaker, non-commuters and people living in nearby slums end up using them, making the task of maintenance and cleaning all the more difficult for us,” said a WR deputy station manager, who did not wish to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
The quality of food at railway stalls too leaves a lot to be desired, say commuters. “I avoid buying cooked food from railway stalls. When there is no alternative, I prefer packaged food,” said Singh.
“The railway food stalls clearly lack hygiene. Food should be at least kept covered and workers must use gloves. It might get cumbersome but an example needs to be set for basic cleanliness by a public utility like the railways,” said Jennifer D’souza, 26, a cruise staffer. To improve the quality of food on stations, Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation also floated tenders for construction of food plazas on 58 stations in 2011.