Bio-toilets are raising a stink

Indian Railways' much-flaunted bio-toilet programme, aimed at providing a clean and hygienic environment in rail premises, has come unstuck as passenger complaints are rising of the toilets choking and foul smell on trains due to their malfunctioning.

Though Railways had announced with much fanfare that it would equip all passenger coaches on all trains with these new-age toilets by 2019-20, given the pace at which these toilets have been put in, meeting that deadline seems daunting. But even more worrisome now are the complaints about the toilets malfunctioning. The Swachh Rail, Swachh Bharat campaign is thus facing a severe challenge.

The Railways operates 13,313 passenger trains, with a total of 54,506 coaches, carrying nearly 23 million passengers daily throughout its network of 1,19,630 track kilometres. The toilet system conventionally used in passenger coaches is of flush type. This involves untreated human waste being discharged directly onto the tracks and platform aprons. As a result, there is organic pollution and unhygenic environment at stations, causing inconvenience to passengers and difficulty in maintenance of tracks.

Besides environment degradation, the direct discharge of human waste from the existing toilet system in trains causes corrosion of tracks, costing the public transporter hundreds of crores to replace the rails.

A bio-toilet, using bio-digester technology, is an eco-friendly waste management solution which reduces solid human waste to bio-gas and water with the help of a bacterial inoculum through biological degradation of the human waste. However, the lack of proper design and effective handling of maintenance of bio-toilets, coupled with an inadequate number of trained staff to manage the new-age toilet system, has confounded the problem to a great extent.

Moreover, the national transporter lacks adequate facilities for bacteria generation, crucial for effective functioning of the bio-toilet system. Railways is also facing the problem of non-availability of evacuation machines, causing difficulties in removing biodegradable waste from the bio-tanks.  

The latest Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on induction of bio-toilets in passenger coaches has amplified concerns about its performance and found operational flaws and widespread malfunctioning.

In an evaluation of 25,000 toilets for the period under review (2016-17), the CAG detected 1,99,689 defects and deficiencies. It has found an increased number of choking of toilets as compared to the previous year. Before CAG, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras and IIT Kanpur in a report said the bio-toilets were no better than "septic tanks" and the water they let out no better than "raw sewage".

Responding to the CAG findings, the Railway ministry said its criticism was "not correct" and that "some problems of choking were occurring on account of misuse of toilets by passengers and these issues are being dealt with promptly." The national transporter did not agree with the IIT reports either.

Reeking issues

It has been found that the Railways have not adhered to the guidelines on testing the effluents released by bio-toilets. The tests had not been conducted at all at the Dhanbad coach depot and records of the samples sent for testing and the results of these tests were not maintained at five depots.  

At the Lower Parel workshop in Mumbai, 18 drums of bacteria, procured at a cost of Rs 68,400 in May 2016, had been lying unused even after their shelf life had expired. After 2011, though the railways placed bulk orders for the supply, installation and commissioning of approximately 80,000 bio-toilets, it is yet to come up with a "standardised design" for these units. Besides, there are reports that inadequate supply and quality of supply of bacteria inoculum was a constant issue.

Under Swachh Rail, Swachh Bharat, Railways had introduced the concept of Green Train Stations and Green Corridors. In Green Train Stations, all the originating, terminating, bypassing and platform-return trains were required to have 100% bio-toilet fitted coaches.    

The tracks on the Green Corridor were also to be made free from human waste discharge. However, the nominated stations or corridors do not adhere to the conditions.  

There are glaring lapses on checks prescribed for bio-toilets during periodic overhaul and visual inspection and testing of effluent discharge from the bio-toilets. The absence of such drives is creating massive problems for smooth functioning bio-toilets in trains, resulting in choked toilets and foul smell.  

Railways had a target of induction of 40,000 bio-toilets in 2017-18, 60,000 in 2018-19 and 30,000 in 2019-20 and for this, timely supply of these toilets is essential. In order to ensure quality and quantity in supply of bio-toilets by private firms, Railways needs to streamline the process so as to achieve the ambitious targets of fitment of bio-toilets in the next two years.  

Creating passenger awareness about using these toilets is another area where Railways is failing as there is no active awareness drive.

(The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist)

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