The regret sank in almost as soon as the Swarn Shatabdi Express began chugging out of New Delhi railway station. At six in the morning, the sights on the rail tracks of India are hardly salubrious. Looking outside my air-conditioned chair car compartment I tried to picture chirping birds. What I saw instead were multitudes doing their business alongside the tracks.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. New Delhi railway station, what should be a modern, shiny showcase to a modern, shiny country smells like a vast toilet. People sleeping in every available space, at the entrance, on the platforms, on the landing of the stairs will need a toilet when they awaken. Aren't there enough? Or is it the ugly Indian rearing his (and her) smelly head?
Indians do reasonably well with personal hygiene. We remove our footwear before entering our homes (a testament to the filth on our streets) and are particular about washing our hands. Much is made about the superiority of our ways because we are washers, unlike those filthy westerners who are wipers. And — the gold star of our fabled cultural superiority — even our glorious Indus Valley Civilisation had a sanitation system.
But our personal fastidiousness collapses when it comes to public hygiene. We wash our homes, blithely chucking the dirty water on to the streets. If spitting was an Olympic sport, we'd have won more golds than any country. Peeing in public is common, even if there is a toilet nearby — though frequently there won't be one and nearly 70% of our people have no access to sanitation facilities and, therefore, no choice but to use the great open spaces, including rail tracks, leading rural development minister Jairam Ramesh to describe the railway system as 'open sewage'.
The responsibility for keeping our 7,000 railway stations clean lies with various departments from civil to health and sanitation. But stations, particularly in north India, fall woefully short. A Comptroller and Auditor General report tabled in Parliament in 2007 lists the shortcomings: no accountability, lack of coordination among multiple departments, lack of waste management, absenteeism by cleaners, the absence of cleanliness benchmarks, no cohesive action plan and way, way too many people, including unauthorised people, in our stations.
Toilets on trains are holes in the ground through which waste is dropped and deposited on the tracks, either at stations or along the way through 1.15 lakh km of rail track that criss-crosses the country. This waste must be either physically lifted by manual scavengers, a dehumanising act banned by law, or washed away with high-powered jets, when water is available.
Biodegradable toilets developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation can be a solution but are under trial and installed only in eight of the 12,000 passenger trains that run at present. Already there are problems. "People are throwing gutka packets and polythene bags inside. How do we stop it?" asks a railways official. Elsewhere, an experiment in private participation is reported to have had positive results in stations like Vashi in Navi Mumbai. At New Delhi the cleaning of platforms and tracks has been outsourced and waste management handed over to an NGO. But even these steps aren't enough to counter the five lakh footfalls daily at the station.
When we talk of dynamic railway ministers, we talk of rolling stock and turn-around time. I don't think any minister since Madhavrao Scindia has actually travelled by train to ask passengers: "How can I improve services?" and then undertake a modernisation drive where no detail was too small — from the way food was served to clean loos.
Our stations are doorways to India, creating first impressions on tourists and connecting the citizens of this vast country. Privatised airports, whether in Delhi or Mumbai, have proved that sanitation is not some alien beast. A sensitisation campaign, on the lines of Atithi Devo Bhava might help instil civic sense. Cleaning up is not rocket science, nor does it require huge funds. What it requires is political will and users who insist on and abide by minimum standards. Right now both are missing.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the authors are personal