Poor track record

Print edition : July 29, 2011

At Erode station in Tamil Nadu where the railway track has doubled as a dumping yard. A 2009 photograph. - M. GOVARTHAN

The Ministry of Railways has not paid any attention to cleanliness and sanitation in railway stations despite a CAG report on this issue submitted to Parliament.

WE can be forgiven if, occasionally, we let the new-found identity that our country seems to have acquired in the eyes of the world an emerging economic superpower and the second fastest growing economy in the world get to us and make us believe that this means we are moving out of the earlier time when we were firmly a part of the Third World, even if we never had the LDC (least developed country) status.

There are visible manifestations to excuse our indulgence, our satisfaction that we have gone up to the high table: skyscrapers, modern airports and metro systems, newer and more expensive cars increasingly seen on the roads of our metropolitan cities (and some non-metropolitan cities too). The fact that the media carried lurid stories of huge amounts of grain rotting out in the open had a subtext, one noted with a faint degree of smugness, that we had huge amounts of foodgrains. And thus our self-satisfaction grew, slyly, almost furtively.

But we have, fortunately, the means to correct this self-deception. To correct it in the sense in which financial experts talk of the market correcting itself, meaning that the value of shares in the stock exchange has crashed. The means in this case is a simple walk into one of our railway stations.

Many of us remember what railway stations were in the old days; thousands of people jostling around on dirty platforms with huge amounts of luggage, large trolleys loaded with goods pushing through them, mountains of parcels blocking most parts of platforms, children crying, the hot fetid air carrying the stench of excreta and urine, and the unending announcements made in some unintelligible language and amplified almost until the other sounds were drowned out.

A truly Third World area into which trains, already crowded, rumbled in horns blaring, making the jostling crowd become frenzied as those in the trains fought savagely to get out and those on the platforms fought equally viciously to get in shrieking to porters to unload or load the huge mounds of luggage everyone seemed to be travelling with.

Well, the good news is that not much of that has changed. Oh yes, there are some changes, but in essentials there is little that is not what it was 30 or 40 years ago. Not too long ago, waiting for the Chandigarh-Kalka Shatabdi at New Delhi station I found myself standing next to a group of persons, possibly a family. A boy of about seven years old began to whine and cry and tug at his mother's sari until she took him to the edge of the platform, yanked down his shorts and made him squat. The boy then voided copious amounts of excreta on to the railway tracks, and his mother, having fetched a bottle of water washed him down and then perfunctorily washed her hands and wiped them on her sari and went back to her group.

Peering down the railway tracks, which one could not help doing, one saw them spattered with faeces and filth. Were there bathrooms on the platform? I could not see any. And why should there be when the railway authorities virtually invite passengers to urinate and defecate on the tracks?

The liberal amounts of filth all along the tracks meant many had done just what the boy did in front of me, and many more had used those marvels that pass for toilets in our trains in which human waste is just dropped off through small chutes on to the tracks.

Audit-Report No.6

This is not the reaction of someone who may be passed off as very fastidious; consider this extract from the Comptroller and Auditor General's Performance Audit-Report No. 6 on the Railways submitted to Parliament in 2007.

In Chapter 2 on Cleanliness and Sanitation on Indian Railways, the report says:

Railways had neither developed any standards as benchmarks for various cleanliness activities nor a cohesive action plan detailing milestones and the roadmap for achieving them. At the zonal level, the norm were either totally absent or not comprehensive enough, rendering the cleanliness efforts ineffective.

Multiple departments were involved in cleanliness activities leading to lack of coordination among them and rendering the cleanliness efforts ineffective. As such, accountability did not go with responsibility.

Railways neither had any mechanism to assess or control the level of expenditure on maintenance of cleanliness in stations and in trains nor a policy on waste management. Large quantities of garbage were found lying in station premises due to inadequate infrastructure, deficient waste collection and disposal mechanism.

Inadequate provision of water supply, washable aprons, drains and sewerage system and ineffective utilisation of machines were major handicaps in providing a clean and hygienic environment in the railway premises.

Passenger amenities such as toilets and urinals, drinking water, seating arrangements and waiting halls were not commensurate with the quantum of passengers using them and were poorly maintained, thereby straining existing amenities and hampering cleanliness efforts with passengers overcrowding the station premises. This was further complicated by the failure to prevent unauthorised persons from entering station premises.

Inadequate training compounded with a high incidence of absenteeismamong safaiwalas in stations maintained departmentally resulted in deficient performance. (Paras 2.10.6 to 2.10.8 and 2.10.11)

There is a great deal more and it gets more depressing when it comes to other details such as bed linen and food.

The truly depressing fact is that this report was submitted to Parliament in 2007. Four years have passed, and we still have people defecating on railway tracks inside stations, filthy toilets where they exist, dirty platforms that are very occasionally and very perfunctorily cleaned.

No one in the Ministry of Railways gives a damn. As long as they have their office rooms, chaprasis on call, their Personal Secretaries or Personal Assistants or, if they are exalted enough, a PPS and files to initial they are all right, in their comfortable world of meetings and study tours abroad.

And yet it can be done in this country, whatever facile excuse the Railway officials may trot out. I do not mean the sparklingly clean state-of-the-art airports in Hyderabad, Bangalore and New Delhi. I mean something that a railway officer has provided, the Delhi Metro. It travels short lengths, true. But one has to see the spotlessly clean stations not one, but every one of them through which close to two million people pass every day, to realise that stations can be kept clean if someone wants them to be.

And it is not just cleanliness. It is the management, the innovations that make travel easier and more comfortable, that make our stations pleasant places. To argue, almost accusingly, that the sheer numbers of passengers must be taken into account is to be foolish in the extreme. On one of their many trips abroad, they would do well to look at the Chinese railway stations and the way they are kept and at the way Chinese trains are, on the whole, punctual. One avoids mentioning their high-speed trains as that is beyond the mental capacities of the railway engineers in this country, who are far more interested in their office rooms and in initialling files.

Not only in the different operating divisions but in all the fancy research institutions the Railways spend so much money on. And no Minister will ever be able to change this because they will smother him with flattery, servility and creature comforts so that he or she rapidly becomes a great defender of the wonder that is the Indian Railways. But ask one of the aam admi what he thinks of the Railways and the service it provides. The answer will be one this magazine will not be able to print.

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