For 168 years, the Indian Railways (IR) has formed the arteries of India. Every day, 12,617 passenger trains and 7,421 freight trains cover some part of 115,000 km of track that includes 7,112 stations. The trains are never empty. Between 2013 and 2014, they transported over 8 billion passengers across the country, moving more people every day than reside in Taiwan. The longest train ride connects Dibrugarh in Assam in the east to Kanyakumari in the southernmost state of Tamil Nadu across 4,273 km in an excruciating 84 hours. I can’t imagine being on that train for any length of time, let alone from start to finish. In fact, I try to avoid any trains I have to board midway through their journey and not at the origin station for one reason and one reason alone: the loos.

And I’m not the only one; many people, especially women, would rather splurge on a plane ticket than face the horrors of the train toilet.

You roll up your pants or salwar so the hem doesn’t get wet, hop around a bit, secure your phone and your eye glasses, pull down your pants, and aiming for the hole under which visible tracks clack-clack-clack, hanging on to the vertical wall rail by one hand while you sway in time to the motion.

If you’ve ever traveled in an Indian train, you know how it works. You sidle into a small 4×4 cubicle equipped with a basin, a perpetually empty soap dispenser, either a squat toilet or a Western commode, with a blue button the size of a 10 rupee coin on a square panel attached to a water pipe that says PUSH. You roll up your pants or salwar so the hem doesn’t get wet, hop around a bit, secure your phone and your eye glasses, pull down your pants, and aiming for the hole under which visible tracks clack-clack-clack, hanging on to the vertical wall rail by one hand while you sway in time to the motion.

After this soul-jarring procedure, you button up, PUSH the flush button, check the soap dispenser (I told you it’s empty), rinse your hands, check your phone and eye glasses are still on your person and not on the tracks, and then exhaling, shiftily exit sideways; roll your pants/salwar down once you’re outside.

This always-traumatic experience is what concerns most people on the train, but pause a second to think about what’s happening beneath those 23 million passengers who commute across India’s railway tracks every day.

The phone and spectacle check is routine because the majority of our trains are equipped with the evocatively titled “hopper” toilets—drop chute toilets that allow human excreta to fall directly through said chute on the tracks below, or if the train happens to be crossing a bridge, then traffic or water bodies.

Standard Indian Railway loo. Photographer: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015
Standard Indian Railway loo. Photograph: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015
Photographer: Suhas Entur
Photograph: Suhas Entur

This raw sewage is not just a major sanitation problem spreading diseases, attracting vectors, and leaching into the groundwater table, but also an infrastructure problem since, in concentration, it corrodes railway tracks.

“Collection and subsequently treatment [of sludge] is one of the last mile problems,” says Kevin Shane from Quicksand, a design, research consultancy whose Project Sammaan tackles open defecation in Orissa. In cities, “this falls under the purview of the local municipal corporation,” he said. On the tracks, none of it is collected or treated. At most, it’s cleaned on board and at stations by a subcontracted agency, often with no accountability, and otherwise by railway staff.

The waste on the tracks? “It degrades on its own,” says Sharath Chandrayan, Chief Public Relations Officer, Western Railways, with sun and rain, “because of our hot and humid climate.”

In cities, the IR contracts companies, many of who employ manual scavengers to clean station and train toilets as well as the tracks. But, there’s no mechanism in place to clean the tracks as trains traverse vast expanses of uninhabited land. Here, nature takes care of waste as it has for centuries. The bigger problem is when the trains hit cities. Despite signs and directives to avoid using the toilet when the train is slowing down or stationary, the maximum use — and damage — occurs in urban areas. Tracks were corroding so badly, according to Narendra Patil, Chief Public Relations Officer of Central Railways, a lot of larger stations such as Mumbai Central have aprons paved over with concrete so they’re easier to hose down. Still, Mumbai Central continues to stink.

So, we’ve got lakhs of train tracks lined with fecal matter along with, of course, the plastic trash that gets chucked out of the trains. And this is the problem the Indian Railways has undertaken to address: By 2019, they want to stop the drop.

So, we’ve got lakhs of train tracks lined with fecal matter along with, of course, the plastic trash that gets chucked out of the trains. And this is the problem the Indian Railways has undertaken to address: By 2019, they want to stop the drop.

Are we Alone?

India is by far the worst offender when it comes to open defecation. Indians account for 59% of the world’s open-air poopers, contributing 65,000 tons of excrement to the surface of the earth every single day.  A report last year by the UN Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization noted that India has actually improved since 1990, reducing open defecation by 31%, but mostly in urban areas.

The other countries on this list include Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. The toilet, then, has become a symbol of sanitation. India is building them, but whether people are using them or not is a quagmire for another journalist.

On the subject of train toilets, though, I was perversely heartened to learn it’s not just us. Though we’re probably the largest, smelliest of the lot, a lot of Eastern Europe plus the entire British commonwealth have trains equipped with drop-chute toilets, leaving many countries to deal (or not deal) with the problem of waste on the tracks.

Since the 90s, most American trains have holding tanks: All waste is collected in a compartment below and then discharged into special trucks at certain stations. Some high-speed trains in Europe and the US also have vacuum flushes, which use pressurized air and very little water to sweep waste out of the commode.

We inherited our railways from Britain. In the UK, for the last 20 years, all new carriages have been built with holding tanks, but older cars still dump excrement on the tracks as they go.

The Indian situation is similar. However, ours is the largest scale conversion simply because our network is so vast. “Traditionally the toilets in our coaches discharge on the tracks, but since 2008, to align with policy change, we’re testing various bio-toilets,” adds Patil at the Central Railways headquarters at the station formerly known as Victoria Terminus.

A demo bio-toilet tank stands forlorn in one of the Central Railways Matunga workshop’s sheds. Photographer: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015
A demo bio-toilet tank stands forlorn in one of the Central Railways Matunga workshop’s sheds. Photograph: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015

A Big Ask

Using technology developed by the DRDO in conjunction with IR, environmentally friendly bio-toilets that completely eliminate solid waste are being rolled out in villages and schools across the country. The bio-toilets are anaerobic digesters, which use bacteria collected from Antarctica to break down fecal matter into odorless and pathogen-free gas and liquid: carbon dioxide, methane, and water. They’ve been deployed in Jammu & Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and, amid some controversy, in Orissa.

In 2012, the Rural Development Ministry came on board to equip 300 gram panchayats with 100,000 biodigester toilets, and IR signed an agreement with them to use the technology in trains for the next five years.

“It’s a big commitment with huge deliverables,” says Namita Banka, founder of Banka Bio, one of the smaller contractors manufacturing bio-toilets for the Indian Railways. “We need 1 lakh (100,000) bio-toilets in 5 years.” It’s a big ask.

They’ve initiated experiments and set deadlines before. Under the previous government’s Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan (later called the Total Sanitation Campaign), a small number of train carriages were fitted with high-speed discharge toilets hooked up to an odometer. When the train reached a speed above 40 kmph, the drop-chute opened. When the speed slowed, a lid closed the chute and discharge collected in a small holding pan, until the speed picked up again. These were designed to stop sewage from being discharged at halts, but the IR phased them out.

The bio-digester was initially developed by the DRDO for use by troops at the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, where conditions are inhospitable at best, they say. DRDO’s website claims they have perfected the technology.

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Photograph: Samyuktha Varma

What the DRDO says:

“DRDO has perfected an eco-friendly biodegradation technology for human waste disposal for armed forces deployed at high altitude locations and glaciers. The sub-zero temperature does not allow the natural biodegradation of organic matter leading to accumulation of the human waste over the years, contaminating the ice, which is the only source of drinking water and poses a great health risk. Further, melted ice contaminates the rivers and other water sources and ultimately spreading the contamination downstream. DRDO developed Biodigester technology is environmental friendly, maintenance free and efficient without depending on conventional energy sources. The effluent is odorless and gets rid-off most of the pathogens.”

But, there are detractors. Vinod Tare, a professor of environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, is unconvinced. In 2012, when the first prototypes were unveiled, his team analyzed them and concluded that the science didn’t add up.

“Under field conditions, when the organic load and hydraulic load is so much, we found that this is not going to work. For an anaerobic process like this, it takes a long time, which the size of the digester doesn’t provide,” he said. “Additionally, there is no data released by the DRDO analyzing the effluent. The only analysis is ours and we didn’t find mass balance.” In essence, he’s asking where the nitrogen and phosphorus from the fecal matter is going when there is purported to be no solid residue.

When testing wastewater and fecal sludge, scientists look at the ratio of COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand), which is the total measurement of all chemicals, organic & in-organic, in waste water, to BOD or Biochemical Oxygen Demand. Bacteria in the waste use organic matter as a food source through oxidation; BOD is a measure of the amount of oxygen required for the bacteria to break down the organic components present.

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The bio-digester tank. Images: Indian Railways

According to a 2012 report, the DRDO believes that 99% of the bacteria were eliminated from the effluent and the COD is less than 2,000mg of oxygen per liter. But Tare says when they tested the BOD to COD ratio, they found it much higher than the DRDO estimated. And, he goes on to say, they found live coliforms in the effluent that would need extensive chlorination to destroy. “Since this chlorine is highly oxidative in nature, it would cause even more corrosion of railway tracks,” Tare concluded. “I wish I am wrong, but in our analysis [of the gas and water] we found the effluent is much stronger than the raw sewage.”

I couldn’t find the refutation or new data from the DRDO but they’ve gone on record to say all Tare’s criticisms have been addressed and the bio-toilets are efficient.

The wheels of the train go round and round ... except when they're at the Central Railways' Matunga workshop to be cleaned of rust. Photographer: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015
The wheels of the train go round and round … except when they’re at the Central Railways’ Matunga workshop to be cleaned of rust. Photograph: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015

In Action

The Indian Railways has 16 zones of which two, the Central and Western Railways, are headquartered in Mumbai. Central Railways operates 215 long-distance passenger trains and 1,618 suburban or local trains. Under giant sheds scattered across 85 acres at the Central Railways’ Carriage Workshop in Matunga, 7,000 workers are busy with all the behind-the-scenes maintenance that goes into running one of the world’s largest railway networks. In one covered shed, hot plates from the pantry cars are being serviced. In another area, rakes are being re-painted; in a third, dozens of disembodied train wheels with thick axles sit on the tracks. In another shed, welders crouch in trenches between tracks to retrofit carriages with bio-toilets. You have to know what to look for, but soon I can identify and count the number of bio-toilets on the undercarriages of the train bogeys. They’re rhomboid shaped tanks made of SS316 grade stainless steel. They weigh 410 kg when full and can hold 300 liters of waste, Senior Section Engineer Brajeshkumar Tiwari tells me.

I am taken to see a cross-section of a prototype: Each tank has six chambers, arranged tetris-like, that strain the waste through and then allow it to travel onward following gravity through small openings. To start with, 120 liters of anaerobic bacteria suspended liquid settle their colonies. These bacteria are able to live in extreme conditions of temperature and humidity, according to the DRDO, and need to be recharged only once a year or so. In the last chamber, chlorine tablets treat the last bit of water before it’s discharged on to the tracks. Above the tank, a pipe lets out the methane.

 

 Engineer B. D. Tiwari shows the chambers of the bio-toilet, marking the flow of the waste through pipes at varying levels, past the green mesh on which anaerobic bacteria make their colonies and digest fecal matter. Photographer: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015
Engineer B. D. Tiwari shows the chambers of the bio-toilet, marking the flow of the waste through pipes at varying levels, past the green mesh on which anaerobic bacteria make their colonies and digest fecal matter. Photograph: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015

There is no solid waste at all, says Patil. Yes, it would be nice if we could collect it and harness it to maybe create fertilizer, he agrees, but the scale is daunting. “We’d need bigger tanks, we’d increase the deadload on the train; the work would certainly increase. We’d need more manpower, more technical know-how.”

The toilet tank is also designed with a trap to catch and eject waste that’s not excreta. In the past, engineers have found plastic bottles, gutka wrappers, sanitary pads, and an assortment of random things, Tiwari tells me. But they’re ejectable by means of a lever and can be chucked on to the tracks without entering the bio-digester tank.

The innards of the bio-toilet. On the top right is the valve that prevents the entry of foreign matter like foil wrappers, plastic and sanitary napkins. A lever in the toilet can eject the foreign bodies from the toilet on to the track. Photographer: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015
The innards of the bio-toilet. On the top right is the valve that prevents the entry of foreign matter like foil wrappers, plastic and sanitary napkins. A lever in the toilet can eject the foreign bodies from the toilet on to the track. Photograph: Chhavi Sachdev, Mumbai, December 2015

According to the UNICEF, less than 30% of India’s rural population has used a toilet. For some train travellers, this loo may well be the first they’ve ever encountered. There are guidelines with text and pictures pasted outside and above the toilets. More education on proper toilet etiquette is needed, “But, yes, it’s not practical beyond a limit,” says Amit Saurastri, Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineers at the Carriage Workshop of Central Railways, acknowledging that behavior change and adoption will take time.

I want to see the slurry of the bacteria “seed” so they patiently escort me almost a kilometer away to another shed, outside which are stacked faded blue rexine-berths from sleeper compartments. The bacteria are quite unseemly: a browny-green liquid with no discernible odor in stout red 150 liter plastic drums that have been ordered from the DRDO facility in Gwalior. When the supply runs low more are sent for, but that doesn’t happen often.

Uphill Task

In the Central Railways, they’re a quarter of the way done: They’ve converted 1,500 toilets across 450 coaches out of a total of 2,100 coaches. The Railways’ zone-wide mandate states that all existing toilets are to be converted to bio-toilets in the next three years. Since 2012 all new carriages are being built with bio-toilets, says Patil.

And soon, these bio-toilets are to be outfitted with compressed-air vacuum flush systems like the kind used aboard planes. Currently trains carry 900 litres of water per coach. The vacuum flush uses only 300 millitres per use, a fraction of what’s used now. Patil points out, that along with “drastically saving water,” it will “reduce deadload on the train as well as maintenance needs.”

In fact, two new vacuum-flush bio-toilets are being trialed in the Vidharba Express, says Patil. These cubicles are half the size of the normal toilets and their cramped, all-metal surfaces greatly resemble airline loos.

One AC 2-tier coach (Coach No. 04059) has been fitted with a vacuum flush twin toilet with bio-digester. This coach is being used for passenger service in Train No. 12105 (Vidarbha Express) to get in-service performance and passenger feedback. Photo Credit: Indian Railways
One AC 2-tier coach (Coach No. 04059) has been fitted with a vacuum flush twin toilet with bio-digester. This coach is being used for passenger service in Train No. 12105 (Vidarbha Express) to get in-service performance and passenger feedback. Photographs: Indian Railways

“Let the system stabilize first, and maybe five years down the line, we can use recycled water for the flushes, too,” says Saurastri.

The workshops are still playing catch-up, though. Retrofitting poses a logistical problem. “We can’t take all of the trains off their routes at once, and some coaches are harder to modify,” points out Saurastri at his office within the Matunga workshop. It’s also a question of supply. “The basic constraint is how many bio-toilets we can get, the industry doesn’t have enough capacity as of now,” he adds.

Banka Bio is one of several contractors making and supplying the bio-toilets. Since 2011, they have been churning out the bio-digester tanks from their Hyderabad facility. “We build 100-150 per month,” says founder Namita Banka. “Our target is 1,200-1,800 units per year. I can’t make more than that.” The other suppliers are also rolling them out slowly. Maintenance is the onus of IR and the DRDO.

Saurastri at Central Railways estimates that their progress mirrors the entire IR system: approximately one fourth of all toilets have been converted to bio-toilets. The rest are still dropping sludge all across the nation.

***

Back in the retrofittment area, I’m with four engineers and I ask them, When will you be done? When will we stop having defecation on the tracks?

Senior Section Engineer Tiwari’s eyes widen. “Soon,” he says.

This year?

Spontaneously, all four engineers laugh. The mirth is unexpected. “Soon,” they insist, still smiling. Next year? Tiwari considers it seriously. He’s still doing the math. How about 2020? Now he’s beaming. “Oh yes. By 2020, we will be done. Before that, we will be done.”