Indian Railways are often called the World’s biggest toilet. The network of 9000 passenger trains carries almost 24 million people a day, equivalent to the population of Australia. It discharges 3,980 tonnes of faecal matter–the equivalent of 497 truck-loads (at 8 tonnes per truck) every day, according to a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report.
Management of human excreta is one of the challenges for the Railways and they have tried many ways to cope up with it. A new kind of bio-toilet has been implemented in the railways over the last four years.
Functioning of the toilet
As many as 93,537 “bio-digesters” until September 2017–as the toilets are called–have been installed in mainline express and mail trains by the Indian Railways. It is a small box placed at the bottom of the toilet. The idea of a bio-toilet is that bacterias would break down the excreta and release methane and water. The water would be disinfected and then released on the tracks.
However, a study by sanitation experts, including the ones sanctioned by the railways shows that none of that is happening. The water that is let out is nothing better than raw sewage. The bio-toilets remain ineffective.
IndiaSpend published a study done by IIT professor Ligy Philip, where she said that the organic matter collected in the bio-disinfectors do not undergo any treatment at all. “Like in the septic tanks, these bio-digesters accumulate slush (human excreta mixed with water),” Ligy Philip said.
Problems with the concept
Documents available with IndiaSpend suggest that there are serious issues with the bio-toilet venture. At a high-level meeting convened by the railway board on October 26, 2017, with functionaries from 17 zones expressed concerns.
The bio-toilets had “more than 100% chance of getting choked”, said M Raghaviah, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Railways. It becomes difficult for the sanitation workers to clean the choked toilets. Also, another problem arises when the toilet chokes. The sewage is automatically let out in the tracks.
The overpowering stench coming from the toilet, due to mechanical problems is also an issue. The toilets not only get choked because of people throwing cigarette butts, sanitary pads, water bottles, plastic and such things but also because the technical valves do not work.
Water pressure is also another problem, as the toilets to function to its full capacity needs 5 litres of water every flush. The cost of making one fitment also rose from Rs. 52,000 to 72,000 in the last four years.
The Indian Railways is looking at a possible solution of introducing “vacuum toilets” now. Vacuum toilets are used in aeroplanes now.
Chennai-based Integral Coach Factory (ICF) has already floated a global tender to acquire vacuum toilets. “To begin with, these will be fitted in premier trains including the Rajdhani, Shatabdi and the Durontos,” a ministry official said.
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