Tuesday, May 04, 2010
A whole lot of crap
Every year several thousand tons of feces fall on the tracks of the Indian Railways. Despite it being a dangerous health hazard, the Railways are yet to install green toilets
By Shevlin Sebastian
There are 40,000 train coaches in use every day in India. “If you take the minimum of 10 people per bogie using the toilet on an average, daily, that is a total of 4 lakh,” says public health activist and non-resident Indian Dr. George Joseph Themplangad. “If 250 grams of feces per person is dropped on the tracks, it means there is 400 tons all over the country.” That’s a mind-boggling 1,46,000 tons a year.
Half a kilogram of feces contains 3 billion virus and bacteria. When the feces dries up it is present in the air. A large number of railway employees who work near railway tracks suffer from various diseases.
“This is because of the fecal dust that they are constantly inhaling,” says Dr Ismail Siyad, associate professor in gastroenterology at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Kochi.
Thanks to winds, the feces are also blown to a distance of 15 kms from the tracks. So, apart from those who live near railway tracks, which number around 200 million, people far away are also affected.
“During the monsoon season, the feces gets washed up into rivers, lakes, canals, wells, and the water supply system,” says Dr. Mathew Philip, Director, PVS Institute of Digestive Diseases, Kochi. “It also ends up in our food and in the air that we breathe. The diseases that we can get are dozens, including polio.”
Polio is transmitted through feces. The feces containing the polio virus of a person who is a carrier is passed out from the body onto the tracks. Then it comes into contact with water, which somebody drinks.
“It is through the oral-fecal route that one gets polio,” says Siyad. “A vast majority of the polio cases in this country is transmitted through the feces lying on the tracks.”
The other diseases include hepatitis, diarrhoea, cholera, and typhoid. Parasites like hookworm, tapeworm, and roundworm are spread mainly through fecal matter.
“When the feces lies out in the open, birds, animals and flies feed on it,” says Philip. “Later, when a fly touches food, the feces and the germs are passed, and this is eaten by human beings.”
Another problem is choked drains. Usually sweepers push the feces lying on tracks at railway stations into drains. But this clogs it up. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India report of 2006 stated that out of 358 stations it investigated, drains in 101 stations were blocked.
When George realised the dangers of the feces lying in the open, he tried to alert the Railway authorities, but to no avail. Finally, in 2006, he filed a writ petition in Kerala High Court, with the Railways and the state government as defendants.
“The Railways made a promise in court that they would settle the issue by 2008,” says George. In fact the then Union Minister of Railways Lalu Prasad Yadav allocated Rs 4000 crore so that green toilets could be set up.
Four years have gone past and there are no signs of any green toilet. “Like the feces, the money seems to have gone down the drain,” says George. But there is talk about setting up a Controlled Toilet Discharge System.
As the trains slow down, below 30 kms per hour, a kind of catchment will appear under the toilets. This will prevent the feces from falling on the tracks at railways stations. “But when the train gains speed and crosses 30 km per hour, it will again open up and the whole thing will be dumped on the tracks once again,” says George, with a rueful smile.
So, is dumping waste on tracks the common method all over the world? In the US and Japan, the trains have steel tanks, which collect the feces. Then when the train arrives at a station this tank is taken to a sewage treatment plant nearby and a pipe is attached so that the contents are transferred without spilling out.
But a few years ago the Japanese introduced the bio-toilet system. This uses bacteria to decompose the waste in septic tanks located on the train. Hence, there is no need to empty the tanks, except, maybe, once a year.
George says that the abundant feces can be used to generate electricity. From every toilet, the feces can be taken to one area in the train, where there is a steel tank.
“It can then be converted into methane,” he says. “A fuel cell processing facility will provide the electricity for the engine. Feces are the new frontier in generating electricity. It is time the Indian Railways put up green toilets.”
He says the railways have the money and the people to retrofit the toilets. “This can be done in less than a year,” he says. “We need to use only 20,000 technicians out of a work force of 17 lakh. Retrofitting is not rocket technology. It is a simple method. We are sending satellites into space. Why can’t we solve this problem, which is such a major health hazard?”
In fact, our leaders had realised that this was a health hazard years ago. In his book, ‘Hind Swaraj’, Mahatma Gandhi devoted an entire chapter on the Railways. “Apart from the pollution caused by the coal and the smoke, Gandhiji blamed the Railways for causing diseases, because of the feces being discharged on the tracks,” says George.
Meanwhile, there is an apocryphal story of President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, who came to India in 2008. While traveling by train from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal he saw some feces lying on the tracks. He is supposed to have said, “I am not surprised. After all, the name of the Railway Minister is La Loo (The Toilet).”
‘The Railways is trying out several options’
Says Hemant Kumar, chief mechanical engineer, Integral Coach Factory, Chennai
What are the different types of green toilets?
There are two types. One is the bio-degradable toilets. In it, there is a retention tank and the fecal matter gets degraded through microbes. The other option is where the feces are stored in a tank, and when the train arrives at a major station, it is discharged into a sewage treatment plant.
Storing in steel tanks is the method used in advanced countries. So, it should work here?
That is one of the options. The Indian Railways is a vast network. The train starts at one place, and goes on traveling for 2000 kms. At various locations, we will need to clean the tanks and pass the material into a sewage treatment plant. We will be trying this out in a limited number of trains.
What is the major difference in conditions in India and abroad?
In foreign countries, the distance between terminal stations is far less. The time taken to travel from place to place is shorter, because of the higher speeds of trains. And, unlike in the West, we have many overnight trains. Also, the number of passengers is much more. We have to find a solution which is tailor-made for India.
According to news reports, the Railways had announced it would install green toilets in all its trains by 2011-13. So, you are far behind schedule?
We are yet to zero in on one particular design. The proliferation of toilets will take place only after that. We have tried out several types and each has some niggling problem or the other. It may also require some infrastructure to be put in place before we can install the green toilets. It will take another year to finalise everything.
What is the cost of putting up such a toilet?
A Controlled Toilet Discharge System, which we have put up in some trains, costs Rs 6.5 lakh per coach, but this is not a green toilet, since it is discharging the feces on the tracks. However, indigenous green toilets will cost less.
Would you agree that feces lying on the tracks are a health hazard?
It is. Apart from feces from toilets, people also defecate on the tracks.
During the Sabarimala season, 30 lakh pilgrims come to Kerala. In railway stations like Kottayam, which is a hub when travelling to Sabarimala, feces are littered on the tracks. What should be done?
Most of the waste is caused by public defecation. During a fair in Sultanganj in Bihar, we had put up several mobile toilets at the station. But when 5000 people arrived, 20 or 30 toilets were not sufficient.
Is there a growing consciousness about green toilets among the public and Railway employees?
Yes, there is. We are working hard on setting up green toilets. Within this year we expect to fit about 20 coaches with green toilets.
(The New Indian Express, Chennai)
at May 04, 2010